Town Administrator Jonathan Butler said this project will bring foot traffic to downtown Adams. Behind him is North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright and Berkshire Scenic Director Jay Green.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Scenic railroad rides are returning to the Berkshires in 2014.
The Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum, the town of Adams and the city have partnered to create the Hoosac Valley Service, which will transport passengers on a 25-minute ride from the Adams Visitors Center to Western Gateway Heritage State Park in North Adams.
The service is designed to boost tourism and increase business in the city and town's downtown, which officials hope will spur greater expansion and business.
According to state Department of Transportation, the Berkshire Scenic Railway has carried more than 100,000 passengers and contributed more than $4 million to the local economy through its South County operations.
The project will coincide with the extension of the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail and the two will share 6/10th of a mile of track in Adams.
At a press conference Friday, representatives of the three entities said MassDOT has secured funding for re-engineering of the rail trail and a mile of new track in Adams that will be built from Burke Construction (at the entrance of the Adams Corporate Park) to the Visitors Center and to purchase the tracks from Pan Am. The state has also made a commitment to provide construction money afterward.
The tracks will be state-owned with a lease to Berkshire Scenic and certain rights-of-way to Pan Am.
Museum officials said they will bring one or two locomotives and three to four coaches to operate six to 10 rides on the weekends and holidays. The museum will also continue its special events, which were lost when Housatonic Railroad Co. refused to renew a lease for use of the tracks from Lenox to Stockbridge, such as the Polar Express and wine tastings. Officials said the disagreement with Housatonic accelerated this project.
"We anticipate a lot of special events," Berkshire Scenic Director Jay Green said, adding that a Hoosac Tunnel "ghost ride" is already being planned. While they won't have access to the tunnel itself, the trip will feature a history lesson of it.
The line will run from behind the Brien Center on American Legion Drive, across Hodges Cross Road and Renfrew and Cook streets in Adams before ending at the Visitors Center.
A fence will be installed separating the trail from the rail until the last section in Adams, where the two will come together. According to Marge Cohan, president of the Berkshire Bike Path Council and supporter of the venture, trails that share with rail lines have proven to be safe.
The partnership not only provides tracks for the Scenic Railway but also emphasizes areas both municipalities are hoping to further develop.
In North Adams, Alcombright is hoping to privatize and revitalize Heritage State Park. However, he said, there is still a hurdle in getting people from American Legion Drive to the park on the other side of the tracks.
"I don't see it as a detriment to the service. Maybe this creates a more walkable environment," Alcombright said.
The mayor also sees potential with partnering with the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts for educational opportunities — such as having theater students help with the special events.
The Hoosac Valley Service will run east of Route 8, across Hodges Cross Road, across Renfrew and Cook streets and end at the Adams Visitors Center.
"This is another piece of what could be a successful Heritage State Park," he said.
In Adams, the town took control of the Visitors Center when the Berkshire Visitors Bureau moved to Pittsfield.
Adams has been on a mission to brand itself as a recreational center and is working toward revitalizing the downtown. This project will help move both of those efforts along, according to Town Administrator Jonathan Butler.
"This is going to open up a lot of opportunities for the Visitors Center," Butler said, adding that the museum will use the Visitors Center to sell tickets.
Butler said "literally delivering thousands of people to downtown Adams" will help capitalize on the recent renovation projects to downtown facades. He called this partnership a "stepping stone to bigger and better things."
For Berkshire Scenic, the Hoosac Valley Service is something it's been trying to start since the 1980s. Green said there was nearly an agreement in 1985 but it fell through.
"We're extremely grateful to be back," Green, who was the city's administrative officer under Alcombright and former Mayor John Barrett III. "We've been trying to operate train rides up here since 1985."
The museum may purchase a used Budd Car train for the new endeavor. The museum now has two stations with no access to tracks in South County and a section of track with no stations in North County. Butler said he will be working with the museum to find it a more permanent home.
The talks began between about six entities — MassDOT, Adams, North Adams, Berkshire Scenic, state Department of Conservation and Recreation and Pan Am — for this project in 2011. The discussion made headway right about the time the rail-trail extension was set to go to bid. Butler said this addition delayed the contract for the extension by a couple months but the extension should be under construction in the spring.
"This came to be right when the bike path was set to state," Alcombright said. "This was an incredibly collaborative effort."
The exact cost has not yet been figured but officials said they are "comfortable" that the state will follow through. MassDOT representatives were at Friday's press conference in support of the project.
Also in attendance Friday were state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams, and state Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield.
"It is really going to be a tremendous boost to our economy," Cariddi said.
Berkshire Chamber of Commerce President Michael Supranowicz said he is currently working on an economic impact study to see exactly what it will be mean for the local economy.
"There will be a huge economic impact," Supranowicz said. "It will be real important to have those destination stops."