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Fresh ideas for Western Mass. rail service

BEACON HILL and the Baker administration clearly want to experiment with new ways of paying for transportation in Massachusetts. A great opportunity to test fresh approaches has emerged in Western Massachusetts, where cities along the Connecticut River Valley are clamoring for better rail service — and a workable strategy to finance it.

The mayors of Holyoke, Northampton, and Greenfield rekindled the conversation with a modest request in October: As the MBTA receives its new locomotives and passenger coaches for commuter rail service in Greater Boston, the three cities would like the agency's hand-me-downs, so that they can test the viability of train service between Springfield and Greenfield. Right now, only a single Amtrak round-trip runs on the tracks, with midday departures that are inconvenient for commuters.


Getting those aging locomotives should be the easy part, and MassDOT Secretary Stephanie Pollack ought to honor the mayors' request. Taxpayers in Western Massachusetts already help cover the T's bills, via their contribution to the state sales tax, and it seems reasonable that the administration should let them have surplus T equipment. A bond bill already allows the state to spend up to $30 million to refurbish the material, some of which dates to the Ford administration.

What makes their request especially appealing is that the Western Massachusetts cities wouldn't need much else in terms of capital spending. The state and federal governments already repaired the 49-mile track along the Connecticut River as part of the stimulus. Stations are already open. The revival of Springfield Union Station is funded and under way, and riders traveling farther south would have easy connections there to Hartford, New Haven, and New York City. With all those pieces already in place, running trains a few times a day would be an order of magnitude cheaper than projects like the Green Line extension or South Coast Rail, which include substantial capital costs for all-new tracks and stations.


But as the cities acknowledge, even with those upgrades — and even if they received the T's old rail equipment for free — they would still need a way to pay for the operating costs like labor and fuel, estimated at around $2 million annually. It's never been harder to fund transportation projects through traditional sources like the gas tax; voters just rejected automatic increases last year.

The most obvious way to organize the trains might be for those communities to join the T service district, pay the assessments charged by the agency, and have the T manage the trains. (The cities may be 100 miles from Boston, stretching the definition of "Massachusetts Bay"; then again, Fitchburg isn't on the water, either.)

But there's also a better option: Baker's administration could work with these communities to set up a value-capture plan so that the projected economic benefits would cover the costs. Under such a system, the cities would have to designate an area around the train station where increases in tax receipts, resulting from the economic growth the train service generates, would fund the project's costs.

With conventional funding short, cities and states are increasingly trying such approaches. In the Commonwealth, Western Massachusetts might be a better place to try it out than in Cambridge and Somerville, where the administration is considering value-capture plans to make up for higher cost estimates on the Green Line. The Connecticut Valley project, on the other hand, is a blank slate. If successful, it could serve as a template for other communities. Legislation introduced on Beacon Hill by state Representative William M. Straus, which is meant to help communities pay capital costs for projects, might provide a starting point for an arrangement to cover operating costs, too.


The plan could prove unpopular and fail. But the initial ridership numbers since the rail line's repair are encouraging, and the stars have aligned in Western Massachusetts in a way that the administration shouldn't ignore. The state has a chance not just to shape economic growth in a region that often gets overlooked by Beacon Hill, but to show how cities and states can pay for needed transportation upgrades.