BOSTON (State House News Service) — Gina Nortonsmith got a promotion, and so now she expects she'll need to make the trek from her home in Northampton to Northeastern University's Boston campus more frequently.
As anyone who has ever braved the roughly 100-mile drive can attest, it can be a less-than-pleasant trip by car, especially with traffic in the greater Boston region effectively back to crushing pre-pandemic levels. If someone like Nortonsmith might prefer to get to and from the capital city without using their own car, the journey can produce hair-igniting levels of frustration.
The MBTA's commuter rail network only goes as far as Worcester. Amtrak offers passenger rail service to points further west, but on its current schedule, just one train per day -- the Lake Shore Limited bound for Chicago -- travels nonstop from Boston to Springfield, the route Nortonsmith has to take to get home from work.
And as Nortonsmith told lawmakers and Healey administration officials on Tuesday, the "schedules are terrible."
The Lake Shore Limited is scheduled to pull into Springfield at 3:21 p.m., six minutes after the only midday Springfield-to-Northampton train departs, she said. After that, the next option to get to her hometown is the Valley Flyer, which pulls out at 9:50 p.m.
"This is an easy fix. Please fix it. Make it easy for us. Make it easy for me to get to work," Nortonsmith said. "Make it easy for my colleagues who work in Boston without cars, because they don't need them, to get out here to all of the things that we have to offer. I say, 'Are you coming to this concert this weekend? [They say,] 'I have no way to get there.' Make it easy for us. Make it easy for my relatives, my elderly relatives who live in Boston, to get out here and visit us. They shouldn't be driving. They can't ride the bus because it's difficult on their bodies, it's hard on their minds. They can get on a train and go from there to here. We can send them home from here without having to drive them back. My kids would come and visit more often if they could ride the train. They don't have a car."
She and dozens of other western Massachusetts residents packed into the Northampton Senior Center on Tuesday, urging policymakers to make frequent, affordable rail service connecting the state's eastern and western halves a reality. The push for that project comes as policymakers try to gauge remote work's durability and face pressure to bring public transportation offered through the Boston-centered MBTA up to more acceptable levels.
An $11.4 billion infrastructure bond bill former Gov. Charlie Baker signed in August authorized an initial $275 million toward expansion of passenger trains into western Massachusetts, and it created a special commission to grapple with questions about the design, permitting, construction, operation and maintenance of that service.
Tuesday's meeting in Northampton was the third of six planned by the commission, which held its previous two events in Pittsfield and Greenfield to gauge feedback from Bay Staters who would be most affected by souped-up train options.
Many speakers pitched regular rail service as both an economic and environmental opportunity waiting to be seized. Greater connectivity could attract more tourists who would inject dollars into small western Massachusetts communities while giving the area's residents better access to job opportunities further east, they said, all while encouraging less travel in emissions-producing cars.
Henry Rosenberg, a retired physician from Northampton, pointed to a new United Nations report published Monday warning of impending catastrophe without action to limit the effects of climate change.
"We don't have any more time to waste, so let's get people out of our cars and onto the rails," he said.
Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner voiced "enthusiastic support" for a rail expansion linking Boston and western Massachusetts. Her community is already a stop on the north-south Valley Flyer that Amtrak operates to New Haven, Connecticut, and Wedegartner said adding regular east-west service would "see our small city thrive."
"We saw a glimpse of that benefit in the last two years during the pandemic as people from cities east and south of us who could work remotely packed up and moved west and north to the country," Wedegartner said. "Many have remarked it was Greenfield's access to rail service and our cost-effective, efficient, city-owned high-speed internet service that allowed that to happen."
Momentum has been growing toward an East-West Rail expansion, driven in part by support from Springfield Congressman Richard Neal and other members of the state's congressional delegation as well as funding newly available under a federal infrastructure law.
In her fiscal year 2024 state budget, Gov. Maura Healey proposed steering $12.5 million in surtax revenues toward the project, including the hiring of a project director, design of a station in Palmer and track improvements in Pittsfield.
Major questions still loom about the overall project scope and price and the governance logistics. A study by the state Department of Transportation estimated in 2021 that the one-time capital costs to launch regular rail service to western Massachusetts could cost between $2.4 billion and $4.6 billion.
Long-term funding was on the mind of Transportation Committee Co-chair Rep. William Straus, who also leads the commission alongside fellow co-chair Sen. Brendan Crighton, when one speaker suggested creating a separate state fund to steer dollars toward operation of the prospective rail service.
"I understand, and it's well stated, the idea of creating a rail fund, but the question will always be: where does the fund get its money?" Straus said. "That's not particular to this. It's always out there, regardless of the mode."
Ben Heckscher, a spokesperson for the Western Mass Rail Coalition, suggested MassDOT be in charge of design, permitting and construction because "they have the expertise."
"It just makes sense for us that we don't recreate the wheel in any form to have somebody else do that," Heckscher said.
When it comes to who should operate the service, he said the Western Mass Rail Coalition believes Amtrak at this point is best-equipped because the company already runs trains in the area.
Heckscher also called for creation of a new western Massachusetts passenger rail authority to oversee everything.
The original law set a deadline of March 31, 2023 for the commission to file its report about public entities that could handle East-West Rail design, construction, operation and other factors, but that date is likely to be postponed by three months. Both the House- and Senate-approved versions of a spending bill that has not yet been finalized would kick the commission's end date to June 30, 2023.
While commissioners work toward that target, they got encouragement and endorsement Tuesday from a former New Hampshire lawmaker.
Marsha Pelletier, now a resident of Northampton, told the panel her 12 years in the New Hampshire Legislature overlapped with the launch of Amtrak's Downeaster service, which links southeastern Maine and Boston via the Granite State.
"We were told that it would only be for vacation travel in the summer," Pelletier said. "Well, that was not the case. If you build it, they will come, and the service there has increased continually all that time."
Written by Chris Lisinski/SHNS.