The governor got off the train in Pittsfield where he renewed his commitment to the project.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Less than a week after a transportation finance bill was signed into law, Gov. Deval Patrick took a ride on the railroad tracks he hopes will soon feature passenger rides from the Berkshires to New York City.
The state is looking to buy and upgrade 37 miles of track from Pittsfield to the Connecticut border in Sheffield. The $113 million in planned track upgrades will support a passenger rail system that officials believe will be a boon to the Berkshire's tourism economy.
"I think the potential economic impact is considerable. I think the opportunity of job creation and quality of life is considerable," Patrick said after stepping off an old Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority car he took from Sheffield to Pittsfield on Monday. "There is some work we have to do with the state of Connecticut to assure that they are ready to step forward like we are."
The state Department of Transportation created a plan of capital investment that included the track improvements among an array of capital investments and expansion projects. It was part of the governor's transportation plan announced in February at the Stockbridge Station; last week, the Legislature signed an $800 million bill into law to pay for the projects.
The trip gave Patrick, who has a home in Richmond, a firsthand look at the conditions of the tracks. The governor said a passenger train wouldn't be operational until three years after the "go decision."
"I suspect from the go-decision, with our experience from previous transportation projects in recent time, there is an indication we can do it sooner than that," he said. "But before the go-decision, as I was alluding to earlier, there is some engagement that we have to have with Connecticut."
According to MassDOT Secretary Richard A. Davey, the $113 million estimate is only for the rail's infrastructure. MassDOT not only needs to reach agreements with Connecticut but also decide on stations and develop an operation plan. (The governor disembarked near the city's waste-water treatment plant.)
"Rail projects are usually on a longer-term track. But that we are here today and we've got equipment out here, it just shows the state's commitment," Davey said. "It is one that the governor cares deeply about, MassDOT cares deeply about and one we are going to work hard at to see through."
Also riding on the train were officials from the Housatonic Railroad. The state would need to acquire the track from the owners and then reach an agreement with them for freight and executing the upgrades.
Owner John Hanlon said he has been in discussions with the state for about two years in trying to bring passenger rail back to the Berkshires.
"I think when you see the governor engaged in the process as he is with the people trying to do the project, it's wonderful," Hanlon said. "The governor wanted to see the rail firsthand. He wanted to see the pluses and minuses and to take a real comprehensive look."
Davey said the track needs significant upgrades because in many places the rail is the same laid some 90 years ago. But with the passage of the transportation bill, Patrick said the state has enough to complete its end.
"I think we can afford the Massachusetts end. But in order for us to warrant the investment on the Massachusetts side, we have to get Connecticut to participate as well because the potential is to go all the way to New York not just to the Connecticut line," he said.
Connecticut would be responsible for nine miles of track.
The railroad tracks in Pittsfield are not up to par to carry passenger rail.
The state is reassessing its capital plans, though, because the transportation bill isn't enough for everything the governor proposed to do. The bill had a rocky passage as it traveled through the Legislature, was vetoed by Patrick and then his veto was overridden last week.
"It is not the size bill we asked for but it is a big step forward," Patrick said.
Davey and Patrick said they are looking at the state's capital improvement plan to find ways to pay for the transportation upgrades. Davey said the passenger rail expansion project "ranks very highly" in the plans.
"We're reviewing the entire state capital plan to see what priorities are going to make the cut over the next few years. But, what the Legislature gave us is a good step forward," Davey said. "This is a project that ranks very highly and something the governor wants to see done. Over the next few weeks we'll be combing through our plan."
State Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, said passenger rail is critical to the Berkshires budding tourism economy.
"I think it is an incredible opportunity for the Berkshires. I think we all know that rail is going to have to play a more significant role, not only in our transportation system but in our economy moving forward," Downing said. "We know full well that there are a lot of connections between the Berkshires and New York City and we know that we have more of a regional connection to New York City more than we do to other major metropolitan areas. ...
"This isn't just something [the governor] would like to do. It is something we have to do if we want to continue to grow and prosper."
If the project does fall through, Patrick doesn't see the Legislature approving any more revenue to make it happen in future years. He said he asked for more funding for the transportation plan because "it was the moment." The bill raises the gas tax 3 cents, raising taxes on a pack of cigarettes by $1 and implements a sales tax on computer services this week.
"My sense is that the Legislature has done all they are going to do for a while in raising new revenue, which is why I pushed as hard as I did to make the most of this moment," he said. "This is about very targeted, high-impact investments."
Also in attendance were Mayor Daniel Bianchi and state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield.
"[Patrick] has committed from the beginning that he is the governor of the whole state and when it comes to transportation, public transportation is critical for Berkshire County for economic development and this is one way to bring economic development to Berkshire County," Farley-Bouvier said.