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Study backs restoring trains to Berkshires

Service would boost tourism, attract more young adults, economist says


Contributing writer

In 1971, when the last passenger train from New York City creaked into the nearly deserted Pittsfield terminal, the price of gasoline was 36 cents a gallon.

For the most part, people at that time who traveled to metropolitan New York from the Berkshires had abandoned trains that had declined in reliability, convenience and comfort. It seemed far easier and economical to drive, either down the Taconic State Parkway or via the Berkshire spur to the New York State Thruway.

But today, gasoline costs nearly $4 a gallon. And to many people in the Berkshires, driving to New York amounts to a huge hassle. There’s also a growing desire, especially among young people, for better, more environmentally friendly alternatives to the automobile.

With these factors in mind, the Housatonic Railroad, a short-line freight hauler that owns the former passenger line from Pittsfield to Danbury, Conn., last year proposed reinstating regular passenger trains to New York City.

Now that proposal, which may have struck some observers as little more than the back-to-the-future dreaming of railroad buffs, is being backed up by a newly released economic analysis.

The study, prepared by Williams College economist Stephen Sheppard, concluded that restarting direct train service between New York City and the Berkshires would lead to an infusion of $625 million into the trains’ service area over the next decade. Of that, $240 million, and about 300 new jobs, would be realized in the Berkshires, according to Sheppard, whose specialty is assessing the potential economic effects of major public infrastructure projects.

By comparison, the estimated cost for restoring passenger train service is about $200 million, according to Colin Pease, the railroad’s vice president for special projects. That figure includes rebuilding the track and roadbed, upgrading road crossings and bridges, and station platforms on the 90-mile route from Pittsfield to Danbury, Conn., and west to the Southeast station near Brewster, N.Y. At Danbury and Brewster, the proposed new service would connect with Metro-North commuter lines to Manhattan.

“The potential benefits of passenger rail serve are substantial,” Sheppard told an audience of local government officials and business leaders last month at the offices of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. “The value of the benefits is large compared to the investment. Projects like this have the potential to revive the fortunes of what was once a threadbare manufacturing region by providing the means to establish a diverse, modern economic base.”

Besides the new jobs, Sheppard predicted, the restored rail service would boost local property values, bring an additional 80,000 tourists to the Berkshires annually, and lead to creation of new business opportunities near train stations. On the tourism front alone, the train would make the Berkshires much more accessible to people in New York City, where more than half of households don’t have cars.

“The increase in new visitors to the Berkshires … is the equivalent of a new major cultural institution, and that alone would bring in $8 million to the economy and create 126 jobs,” Sheppard said.

Those assembled for Sheppard’s presentation seemed impressed.

“These results are far better than I expected,” remarked Lauri Klefos, president and chief executive of the Berkshire Visitors Bureau. She noted that the rail service is expected to appeal to younger travelers – especially between 25 and 40, a demographic that cultural and tourism organizations have been eager to attract.

Financing is next step

Sheppard pointed out that the project is unusual because, as envisioned by Housatonic Railroad President John Hanlon, the trains would not require an operating subsidy.

“I’m very excited about this aspect of the project, because there are few places where there is an opportunity to bring back rail service without operating subsidies,” Sheppard said. “If this private mode of operation can be made to work, it would be a very exciting model for the rest of the country.”

Hanlon said the results of the economic study will help his company as it works to move forward with the project. Last year, an initial ridership survey estimated that 2.5 million people a year would use the service.

“You have to have determined the economic benefits before you can do a pro forma for financing,” Hanlon explained. “There are, for instance, low-interest loans available through the Federal Railway Administration, but we have to determine in detail the fare structure.”

Many of the specifics are still to be worked out, he added.

“The infrastructure costs are the easy part,” Hanlon said. “The revenue picture is complex, because the length of trips will be different depending on where the rider gets on. There will be some commuters, especially in the southern portion of the route.

“And we are going for a public-private partnership for financing. Generally speaking, it’s unusual for a private business to seek financing for a passenger rail transportation project.”

Once the financing is in place, actual construction and infrastructure improvements would take three years, the railroad estimates.

Hanlon pointed out that it takes an average of 14 to 18 years to build the average new public transportation network run by a government agency. But as a private company, he said, his railroad can act more swiftly.

“We plan to have this done in five years,” Hanlon declared. “We’re going to do it cheaper, better and faster.”

Strong public support

Even though the project is at least five years away, it has already attracted the enthusiastic support from Berkshire communities and business owners. The town of Great Barrington, for example, has included the return of passenger rail service in its master plan for the next decade.

And among those listening to Hanlon and Sheppard were developer Stephen Muss and his architect, Stephen Siskind, who are laying plans to transform the massive Monument Mills complex, right next to the train line in the village of Housatonic, into a new commercial and residential “cultural colony.” They view a passenger-rail connection to New York as an essential component of their project.

One potential occupant of the renovated Housatonic mills is Karen Christensen, founder of Berkshire Publishing in Great Barrington. She foresees the mill complex being home to a group of publishing firms that could employ more than 1,200 workers. Passenger rail service is essential to her plan as well.

“As a business owner who wants to grow her enterprise, I know that train service could make a big difference in recruitment and would enable me to bring colleagues and authors from around the world to the Berkshires on a much more frequent basis,” Christensen said. “Transportation has a huge influence on sustainable economic development.”

Christensen has organized a passenger-rail advocacy network of local residents, called The Berkshire Trains Campaign, and said she has received hundreds of messages backing the idea of restored train service.

And she has petitioned the state legislative and congressional delegation for support of the project. In a letter to U.S. Rep. John W. Olver, D-Amherst, she wrote:

“Improving rail transportation isn’t just a matter of convenience or reduced environmental impact. Excellent public transportation makes sustainable economic development a real possibility because businesses that could offer substantial numbers of professional jobs would be far more likely to relocate or grow in Great Barrington if we had good access to New York and to Boston.”

Christensen is so anxious for the passenger trains to start rolling to the Big Apple that she was disappointed to hear at last month’s gathering that she might have to wait five years for the service to begin.

“Five years?” she exclaimed. “Why that long?”

Lukewarm lawmakers?

Despite the apparent enthusiasm for the passenger service among local residents and business leaders, however, it may take even longer than five years for the rail network to materialize – if it ever does.

As of late August, Christensen said she had yet to receive a response from Olver, who’s the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, or any other of the local legislative delegation. And state Rep. William P. “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, is reported to have observed that the Legislature would have “little appetite” for committing funds to restore rail service to the Berkshires.

Nevertheless, Sheppard and Hanlon indicated they are convinced that the potential for substantial economic benefits from passenger rail service is compelling enough that the political will to undertake project will emerge.

Hanlon points out that there are 22 million people within the New York City metropolitan area, 55 percent of whom rely on public transportation.

“That’s a trained populace,” he said, whose preference is for rail service if it is convenient and offers such amenities as WiFi.

“Bringing a younger demographic to the region provides for future growth, and it would drive the creation of satellite offices and thus the re-use of old buildings, such as those in Housatonic, and investment in local community infrastructure,” Hanlon said.

Further, Sheppard predicts that increased business activity would result in a substantial increase in local, state and federal tax revenues – an estimated $29 million in state and local tax receipts over 10 years, and $55 million in federal revenues for the same period.

He also cited the reduction in automobile traffic as a measurable benefit for slowing climate change.

“We estimate that the train service would reduce automobile miles by 155 million,” he said. “That would cut the number of highway injuries and fatalities, as well as the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.”

Overall, Sheppard said, the restoration of rail service would give the region not only a more stable economic foundation but also an enhanced quality of life and a more accessible and attractive destination for tourists.

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