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Berkshire legislators introduce Housatonic rail line passenger service study

Karen Christensen, of the Train Campaign. (Evan Triantafilidis)

GREAT BARRINGTON  — Concurrent House and Senate legislation has laid down a parallel track toward connecting the Berkshires and Grand Central Terminal with passenger rail.

After nearly a half-century break from providing passenger service, the Housatonic Railway could soon serve as a passenger line from Pittsfield to New York City, with potential stops in Lenox, Lee, Great Barrington, Stockbridge and Sheffield.

A House bill, presented by state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, and a Senate bill, presented by state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, have been “reported out” favorably by the state’s Joint Committee on Transportation, according to the bills’ petitioner and Great Barrington resident, Karen Christensen.

The two pieces of similar legislation call for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) to convene a working group on the benefits of passenger rail service between Pittsfield and New York City via the Housatonic Railway.

Until 1971, the Housatonic line, also known as the Berkshire line, served as a passenger rail route from Danbury, Connecticut to Grand Central Terminal.

In 2010, the Housatonic Railroad Company (HRC), based in Canaan, Connecticut, commissioned a market feasibility analysis to determine the expected demand for passenger rail. The projected ridership study, conducted by Northampton-based Market Street Research, concluded that one in four residents who currently travel between New York City, northwestern Connecticut and Berkshire County are highly interested in the proposed train line.

The August 2010 study also said ridership would be largest during the summer months and smallest during the winter months.

One year later, the Berkshire County-based nonprofit, The Train Campaign, was launched by Christensen, a Great Barrington resident since 1995. The nonprofit advocates for the revival of passenger rail service between New York City and the Berkshires.

Christensen is also the owner and CEO of Berkshire Publishing Group, based in Great Barrington.

On Monday, Feb. 10, Christensen held an informational meeting at Number 10 in Great Barrington to update stakeholders to progress on the Housatonic line.

“The revival of passenger rail in the states is something that so many people care about, but it’s really a challenge to do it,” Christensen said.

Christensen expressed her concern with the current job market and said the upgraded Housatonic line could provide an easier route into New York City, as well as turning the Berkshires into a destination for those in Connecticut and New York.

“I think people should work jobs with regular hours, not piecing together parts of an income, so they can be a part of a community,” Christensen said. “You used to be able to go to the theater in New York and come right back. Why can’t we have the best of both worlds?”

The proposed project by the HRC would provide eight trips a day and travel the 160 miles from Pittsfield to Grand Central Terminal in an estimated 3 hours and 55 minutes.

In 2014, a transportation bond bill was passed on Beacon Hill that included funds in support of the Housatonic line. Thirty-seven miles of rail track was then purchased from HRC by the state for $13 million, and then another $37 million was allotted towards the replacement of 30 miles of rail and to replace all the old ties on the complete 37-mile stretch.

Christensen says a similar upgrade to the 37 miles of track in Connecticut is also essential to the revival of the Housatonic line.

Connecticut’s former governor, Dannel Malloy, said in the past that he cannot justify spending millions of dollars of Connecticut taxpayers’ money to facilitate passenger rail service that would only benefit the Berkshires in neighboring Massachusetts. That position doesn’t appear to have changed.

In a December 2015 interview with the Record Malloy said that if train aficionados want to restore passenger rail service from Grand Central Terminal to the Berkshires, then the state of Massachusetts will have to pay more than its share of the tab to upgrade freight tracks to passenger train quality.

“Don’t get me wrong; I understand it might serve [their] needs,” Malloy said. “But in terms of the numbers of people that get served, it really is driven by Massachusetts traffic, and there is no way to afford to do that project if this is ‘they take care of their side of the map and we take care of our side of the map.’ And by the way, that’s just not how projects get done.”

“I understand why they want to do it, because they get a lot of service for very little money and we get relatively little service for a lot of money,” Malloy continued. “So I’m open to discussions with the folks in Massachusetts but it’s gotta be about how it’s paid for. The current proposition is not possible.”

For now, Christensen says she is pleased with the advancement of the recent legislation that will assess the short-term and long-term economic benefits of potential passenger service.

She’s also encouraged by the fact that work began in Housatonic and Great Barrington in 2018 by partially replacing the old rail ties.

The MassDOT working group will be tasked to look at the economic opportunities that the Housatonic line could bring, including direct and indirect jobs; access to educational opportunities; access to affordable housing; tourism; and tax and other revenues to municipalities in the Berkshires and the Commonwealth.

Last week, MassDOT released their highly-anticipated East-West Passenger Rail Study that focuses on six options — ranging from $2 billion to $25 billion — that would provide passenger rail service between Pittsfield, Springfield, Worcester and Boston. A public meeting for the East-West Passenger Rail Study Advisory Committee is scheduled for Monday, Feb. 24 from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Sheraton Springfield Monarch Place Hotel.

Christensen stressed the importance of residents and stakeholders contacting their legislators and advocating for passenger lines, like the Housatonic line and the East-West line, to return to the Berkshires.

“People need to know that this is a real and immediate prospect,” Christensen said. “But we need their support in Boston. Even though the East-West is getting more attention, this is our immediate low-hanging fruit. This can happen for so much less money and so much more quickly.”

Christensen holds periodical update meetings in the Berkshires about several state-wide rail projects and also is the founder of TrainCampaign.org, where more information about the nonprofit can be found.

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