The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission held a hearing last week on the potential for passenger rail to New York City.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Realization of passenger rail access from New York City to the Berkshires is still years away and contingent on as-yet undeclared commitments from Connecticut, but Housatonic Railroad and local planning officials continue to be optimistic about the prospect.
"There is a lot of regional cooperation that is going on between the two states," said Housatonic President Colin Pease last week at the second of two public input hearings on station site locations for the planned line. "I think ultimately that the politics will work out."
Pease praised the financial commitment by Gov. Deval Patrick of as much as $113 million to create the track infrastructure for the line, which would run from Pittsfield, through Danbury, Conn., to Grand Central Station, with multiple possible stations along its route through South and Central Berkshire County. The state Department of Transportation last month was authorized to purchase the Berkshire Line as the first step in the project.
"The availability of Massachusetts money is, I think, significant, because it can be used to match federal funds," the railroad executive said Wednesday.
Patrick, speaking on the issue at unrelated event last month, said such projects tend to move slowly but "we're going to push it as far as we can before I leave office."
"We're very enthusiastic about resuming commuter rail service between New York and the Berkshires," Patrick said. "There are clear economic and quality-of-life values that come from that."
According to a soon-to-be-released station site and design study by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, Great Barrington, Pittsfield and Lee remain the most highly recommended locations for locating passenger stations, with Sheffield as another possibility dependent on wherever the nearest Connecticut station ultimately falls.
The most readily viable station location, according to the study, is the Scelsi Intermodal Transportation Center in Pittsfield, because of the population density, accessibility and walking proximity to two of the top 10 most highly patronized tourist attractions in the county, according to statistics from the Berkshire Visitors Bureau.
Great Barrington's historic train station is also an ideal choice for the Southern Berkshires, although the study also identified alternate sites slightly to the south and north of that station. In Lee, a site near Route 102 was found slightly more feasible than a downtown station, but that spot also features more environmental restrictions that could hamper future development around the station.
"We don't want to count out the possibility of a passenger station in downtown Lee," said BRPC Regional Planner Gwen Miller.
The $240,000 siting study, paid for with a federal grant matched by the railroad, is the most recent step in a several years long process of planning and research for a project that is ultimately expected to cost more than $200 million in public and private funding. In late 2010, the railroad released a ridership survey which projected an estimated customer base of two million one-way rides annually.
A subsequent study commissioned by the railroad from Williams College economist Steven Sheppard further postulates an economic gain of $625 million over the first 10 years, including approximately 733 construction jobs during its three-year installation, along with another 431 new permanent jobs created in the following seven. More than a quarter of these jobs would be in tourism and hospitality related industries, which Sheppard says will see an increase of about 80,000 visitor days annually.
"It will bring a new demographic, a new younger generation to this region," said Pease, "Which is very important for the future development of the Berkshires, as the existing visitor demographic slowly disappears."
Pease added that the project would also bring the benefit of offering intra-county transportation from Pittsfield to Lee or Great Barrington at certain times of day.
Project Manager Brian Domina said the full draft report should be out in early September, after which there will be a 30-day period for additional public input before finalizing the study.
Despite tacit commitments from Massachusetts government, the project's future remains uncertain, though Pease said he is "optimistic" that the rail line will be established in the not too distant future
"Someone said to me, these things take 20 years," said Pease. "I said 20 years from now I'll be dead, and I'm not going to wait that long."
"It depends on the political will that's shown to get it done," said BRPC Executive Director Nathaniel Karns. "Or the level of opposition to getting it done, frankly.
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