Rep. Neal highlights east west-rail among Dems’ transportation priorities

  • U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, speaks at a House Ways and Means Committee meeting on Jan. 29, during which lawmakers discussed financing for a $760 billion infrastructure plan proposed by Democrats. SCREENSHOT/HOUSE WAYS AND MEANS COMMITTEE

Staff Writer
Published: 2/7/2020 4:59:49 PM
Modified: 2/7/2020 4:59:36 PM

NORTHAMPTON — As Democrats in the nation’s capital unveiled a $760 billion infrastructure plan last week, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal was front and center — and so too was a pet project for many in Western Massachusetts.

The legislative outline, known as the “Moving Forward Framework,” is a plan to rebuild transportation infrastructure, expand broadband access and preserve clean drinking water, among other priorities. Though unlikely to be enacted after bipartisan infrastructure talks flamed out in May, the plan was unveiled by top Democrats including Neal, D-Springfield, who highlighted rail expansion in Massachusetts as a personal goal.

“For me, the concept of east-west rail expansion in Massachusetts — from Boston to Worcester to Springfield to Pittsfield — will be a priority,” Neal said to open a meeting of the Ways and Means Committee, which he chairs. “The success that we had with the north-south rail link between Springfield, Hartford and New Haven is a substantial achievement and is already well beyond what the projected numbers were of ridership.”

When asked how Neal might be able to ensure funding would go to a specific project such as east-west rail, Neal spokesperson William Tranghese said in a statement that the plan is a framework for improving and modernizing the nation’s infrastructure.

“It is the start of a conversation,” Tranghese said. “As the process moves forward, language will be added that will determine how investments in specific projects are made.”

East-west rail has long been a dream for residents, politicians and activists in Western Massachusetts. And advocates took notice of Neal’s push.

“The opening statement heard ’round the world — or certainly heard all around Massachusetts,” is how state Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, characterized it.

“There’s no doubt that’s an immense lift for the effort,” said Lesser, who is on the East-West Passenger Rail Study Advisory Committee. “Certainly having him championing it and prioritizing it is essential.”

State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, said that although it remains to be seen whether the Democrats’ plan will ultimately get passed, she was “thrilled” to see Neal mention east-west rail.

“It does need to get brought up over and over and over again,” she said.

The state Department of Transportation is conducting an already delayed feasibility study of east-west rail that’s due by this spring. And on Feb. 12, the state will hold a public meeting in Springfield to gather feedback on six alternate ways of improving rail connections.

Neal has previously advocated for an east-west rail connection, saying it would enhance economic growth in central and Western Massachusetts. Last week, he said the Democrats’ infrastructure plan will create growth and good jobs.

“Everyone wins when we make meaningful, sustained investments in our nation’s infrastructure,” Neal said.

During his opening speech before the Ways and Means Committee, Neal also said the infrastructure plan would reduce carbon emissions and tackle the climate crisis, “which should be part of any major undertaking by this committee.”

Though Neal touted the carbon reductions he said the plan would yield, he has faced local pressure from environmental activists over his record on addressing climate change. Neal remains the only member of the state delegation not to co-sponsor the Green New Deal resolution in the House. That resolution includes language “ensuring that any infrastructure bill considered by Congress addresses climate change.”

In his statement, Tranghese noted that Neal has said climate change is real and is “a threat that requires bold action.”

“He has a long record of supporting congressional efforts to protect our planet,” Tranghese said. “That’s why the infrastructure plan he introduced this week includes specific investments that would directly combat climate change.”

Neal’s comments come just weeks ahead of the public meeting in Springfield of the state’s East-West Passenger Rail Study Advisory Committee. From 6 to 8 p.m. on Feb. 12, the advisory committee will hold what Lesser calls a “town hall-style” meeting in Classroom 014 of the UMass Center in Springfield.

“This is not a project for Western Massachusetts, this is a project for our entire state,” Lesser said, noting that east-west rail could help the local economy while alleviating traffic and housing woes in the eastern part of the state. “The continued crisis facing Boston has opened a window of opportunity for east-west rail to be presented as a solution.”

Sabadosa said a Western Massachusetts rail line to Boston would create a new “Northeast Corridor,” referring to the country’s busiest rail corridor, which runs from Boston to Washington, D.C.

“It’s going to allow for economic development and mobility throughout the region,” she said.

Another feasibility study is also set to start this year on the possibility of commuter rail along Route 2, connecting North Adams and Boston.


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