A future high-speed “east-west” rail service between Boston and Springfield, and perhaps beyond, could draw far more riders than previously estimated, state officials acknowledged Wednesday.
However, even those ridership levels may not be enough for the multi-billion dollar project to qualify for federal funding, said state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack.
The east-west connection is a longtime dream of some rail advocates, who argue it would allow workers to live further out in more affordable regions and still commute into Boston, while also boosting the economies of Western Massachusetts. After repeated requests from the state Legislature, the Baker administration is now studying the feasibility of such a connection.
Under prior projections, ridership estimates ranged from as low as 36 riders a day to more than 800 depending on the speed and frequency of the trains, as well as which towns and cities it served. But Pollack on Wednesday said ridership may actually be four to five times higher, based on new estimates, with one version of service drawing almost 1,200 riders a day.
The change comes after advocates for the train route sharply criticized the state’s methodology as flawed. They argued the ridership estimates did not fully account for potential riders from the colleges in the Amherst area, and because it did not factor in people who may move or change jobs to take advantage of the service.
The state redid the analysis to account for those factors, Pollack said, because “if we are going to do east-west rail, one of the reasons would be for the induced demand and economic growth it could engender.”
Advocates had also criticized prior cost estimates, which the state pegged at ranging from $2 billion to $25 billion depending on the scope of the project, as inflated. Pollack said the state still stands by those estimates for now, citing high costs for smaller commuter rail projects. But she pledged to reexamine them as the study of the project advances.
“High-speed rail in particular, rail that you want to be able to go 90 miles an hour or more, is expensive to build," she said. “It’s just expensive."
State Senator Eric Lesser of Longmeadow, a longtime champion for the rail connection, believes the state is still underestimating its potential, especially as the service could spark new development around rail hubs that could result in even higher ridership.
“It still begs the question of how seriously MassDOT is taking this project,” Lesser said. "It will change the state’s development patterns and make that more equitable. ... It’s about creating growth and economic opportunity tomorrow and years after that.”
Pollack warned that the project could struggle to receive the types of federal funds she has said it would need in order to be built. Even with the higher ridership estimates, it would fall far short of meeting a standard for federal rail funding that balances costs and benefits.
While the state may determine the project is worth building, it won’t be able to do so without federal funding, she said. The threshold to receive that money could be a significant sticking point for the project, although construction would still be years away.
For example, the state is extending commuter rail to New Bedford and Fall River with its own money because the $1 billion project won’t generate enough passengers to qualify for federal aid, Pollack added.
“But it was at ... the upper end of what is really affordable for a state, and this [east-west] project is substantially above that,” Pollack said.
For east-west rail, the state is considering six versions with varying degrees of speed and service. The simplest would establish a shuttle train service between Springfield and Worcester, where riders could transfer for further service to Boston, or improve tracks to directly link Boston and Springfield. At the most expensive end is the creation of a new rail right of way for high speed trains that could hit 150 miles an hour, with 17 round trips a day, between Boston and Pittsfield.
Other options, ranging from $4 to $5 billion, would build new tracks alongside existing rail used by Amtrak and freight services, allowing for more frequent service.
The state plans to narrow the options to three in the coming weeks, and issue a final report in the fall.
Jon Chesto of the Globe staff contributed to this story.