Officials talk funding for, hear feedback on Northern Tier Passenger Rail

One of the potential Northern Tier Passenger Rail proposals that would create a rail service connecting North Adams and Boston, with a stop in Greenfield.

One of the potential Northern Tier Passenger Rail proposals that would create a rail service connecting North Adams and Boston, with a stop in Greenfield. Screenshot

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 04-01-2024 5:00 PM

As the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s (MassDOT) study of the Northern Tier Passenger Rail project continues, officials and consultants Thursday night collected more feedback and laid out some of its potential funding streams in the final public meeting gauging interest in the project.

Over the course of the last several years, the state and consultants from engineering firm HNTB have been developing preliminary plans for what a train service from North Adams to Boston, with a stop in Greenfield, could look like. With six potential proposals presented to 240 members of the public, attendees voiced their support for the project.

At a minimum, there would be five trains running daily with stops in North Adams, Greenfield, Fitchburg and North Station in Boston. Travel times from Greenfield to Boston are estimated at two hours to 3 hours, 22 minutes, depending on which design is selected.

“This Northern Tier Rail would be a game-changer for our community. Public transit in Franklin County has remained a challenge and this would be something that would make such a big difference,” said Greenfield Mayor Ginny Desorgher. “I hope it comes to fruition.”

Each project alternative proposed features a different number of stops, infrastructure improvements and estimated ridership levels. Capital costs range from $878.5 million for the lowest investment to $2.9 billion for full electrified rail service.

Paul Nelson, a transportation planning manager with HNTB, explained most of the proposals, also called alternatives, feature similar plans, except for Option 5, which would extend service to Albany, New York. The most cost-effective projects per rider in the long-term would be Option 3, the full electrified service, and Option 4, which would provide “full local service” with additional stops in Shelburne Falls, Athol, Gardner and Porter Square in Cambridge.

Regardless of which option is selected, Nelson said, “all alternatives are estimated to provide connectivity, mobility and choice” to residents across Massachusetts.

While the project is still in the early stages, Nelson and Anna Barry, HNTB vice president and program manager, laid out numerous federal programs that could fund the project, as well as state and local programs, including direct legislative appropriations.

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“Some of these federal programs specifically offer planning phase grants, so you don’t have to have engineered or designed plans ready for construction,” Nelson said. “The body of work from this report could be used to put a grant application together. That’s probably the most common starting point we’re seeing right now.”

The state and consultants also presented draft recommended next steps, which include studying the travel demand along the Route 2 corridor, advancing planning efforts, looking at potential phasing strategies and developing strategies for improving rail connections.

As the project advances, numerous residents and elected officials from the Pioneer Valley and Berkshire County shared their support for the rail service.

“I also wanted to give a full-throated endorsement to building this project as soon as possible,” said Greenfield At-Large City Councilor John Garrett, “and hope the state will publicly commit to an incremental approach at the very least.”

“We are certainly in favor of Northern Tier Rail and its potential to support population growth in our smaller towns,” added Orange Director of Economic Development Mikael Pyrtel, “and its potential positive impact on our travel and tourism industries, as mentioned in the state’s Economic Development Strategy.”

All Northern Tier Passenger Rail study documents, as well as recordings of working meetings and public information sessions, can be found on MassDOT’s webpage at mass.gov/northern-tier-passenger-rail-study. Public feedback can also be shared through the website.

With the public invited to engage with the state throughout the duration of the project, state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, emphasized it will take continued “people power” to keep pushing the proposal down the tracks.

“I wanted to double down on the real need for people power and stakeholder engagement; it is going to be what we’re going to need to overcome any obstacles,” Comerford said. “The entire Northern Tier corridor delegation is united in support of moving forward at the fastest pace possible to explore what’s next.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com.