Browse By

Can Lesser’s Rail Study Get by with a Little Help from His Friends?…

Gonna try connecting the Commonwealth (again) with a little help from my friends. (created via wikipedia & Lesser campaign images)

On the one hand, Tuesday’s hearing on Beacon Hill for Senator Eric Lesser’s rail study bill is a familiar ritual for the Longmeadow Democrat.  The legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee has favorably reported it before. The Massachusetts Senate has included it in the budget more than once.  But one thing will be different this time.

Lesser has chartered a bus to bring a posse of constituents and other 413 residents to testify in support of the study. The main audience may not be committee members, though.  Rather, the show of force, joined with a shift is legislative strategy, seems directed at Governor Baker and others who have foiled Lesser’s bid to pass the study up to now.

Leveraging public opinion has been an evolving strategy for Lesser. A week ago, he unveiled a webpage to gather stories and opinions from Western Mass residents.

“It’s time to refocus the conversation about Springfield-Boston rail where it belongs: you and your family,” he said in a statement accompanying news of the site.  He went on to suggest legislators might back the study after hearing from people in the 413.

Lesser’s proposal got a boost last week when House Speaker Robert DeLeo announced he supported studying East-West rail.  Though DeLeo did not commit to Lesser’s version of the study, the speaker’s comments may mean there is hope for the measure, possibly without using the budget process.

“Speaker DeLeo recognizes the great importance of transportation to economic development,” and “supports studying numerous modes of transportation including east-west rail,” spokesperson Whitney Ferguson said in an email. She noted DeLeo would continue to discuss the matter with key Western Mass reps, including Reps Peter Kocot and Joseph Wagner. Wagner was with DeLeo when the speaker shared his views of the study with The Republican.

Sen. Eric Lesser’s study would lay groundwork for more rail service–and a way for Boston to escape its traffic mess. (via wikipedia)

Up to now, Lesser used the budget process to mandate the Massachusetts Department of Transportation produce a study on the particulars of establishing regular East-West rail service. Because the department would use existing resources for the study, it required no appropriation.

Last year, the study rolled into the buzz saw of Baker’s veto pen. While arguably there was insufficient time to act, the House of Representatives’ failure to consider an override lifted eyebrows.

The Senate included the study again this year, but it was left on the Fiscal Year 2018 budget cutting room floor.

Baker’s budget pruning killed the rail study in 2016. (created with WMassP&I 20th Century Fox images)

Opposition to the study exists on two planes. The first is more provincial. Motorcoach magnate Peter Picknelly, also a top Western Mass fundraiser for Baker, claims to oppose a study that leaves out other forms of transportation. Presumably he doesn’t mean hitchhiking.

Speaking to The Valley Advocate, Picknelly said the state could do other things to improve transportation more quickly.  However, he barely concealed his opinion of Lesser.

“This is a sound byte for Eric Lesser to simply get his name in the newspaper and in the media,” Picnkelly told the Hampshire County-based alternative weekly.

Some sense Picknelly’s influence in the conference committee’s move this year, too. Though he has denied it, some suspect Wagner, the long-serving Chicopee rep and former Transportation Committee co-chair, used his ties to House leadership to scuttle the study.

Even if the accusations were true, circumstances have changed since this year’s budget passed. DeLeo selected the Jeffrey Sanchez, a Boston rep from a transit-dependent district to fill the chair of House Ways & Means. The committee would likely review Lesser’s bill even if it advanced outside the budget process.

Another reason Baker may oppose it is a desire to minimize the commonwealth’s commitments and wish lists. Most estimates of implementing Lesser’s proposal pale in comparison to hefty items like the Green Line Extension or North-South Rail link. But it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars Baker would rather not raise lest he rankle his right flank.

Baker has maintained a decidedly unambitious infrastructure agenda. Doing so obviates any need to fathom increased revenue. Many in the legislature, particularly Democrats from reddening districts, are cool with that.

A busload of Western Mass residents could put a human face on the issue. While it may not impress the governor, it could embolden the legislature to override any veto of the study.

Massachusetts’s Occidental residents can be conspicuously absent in Boston, diminishing the region’s influence. By bringing them directly before the legislature, Lesser can demonstrate more explicitly the support rail has in the West.

The matter has already gotten some statewide praise. The entire Democratic gubernatorial field supports the study and expanding rail service.  US Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey have lent their backing as has the state’s Congressional dean, Springfield Rep. Richard Neal. Berkshire political figures, who would not even stand to gain initially—rail service would likely terminate in Springfield or turn south toward New Haven—have also lent support.

Boston business figures, including the Chamber of Commerce, some of whom may submit testimony as well, have come out in favor of the study, too. Sky-high housing costs and ballooning traffic threaten the Hub’s economic future.

“The Chamber is working to connect regions across the state to support a statewide economic development strategy that will ensure Massachusetts remains competitive with other states and regions,” Boston Chamber president Jim Rooney, wrote in a letter to legislators earlier this year.

Acela is unlikely, but faster service otherwise similar to Amtrak’s is plausible. (via wikipedia)

Should it finally become law, it will set in motion another, frankly long process. Whatever form the study takes, as long as its focus is rail, it should yield a lot of data.

Lesser and other rail advocates could then determine the scope of work needed and begin leveraging transportation dollars. “High-speed” rail may not be the result, but service competitive with driving plausibly could be.

Of course, there is a less talked-about factor. Crushing the study is also a proxy for corralling or minimizing Lesser. While the Longmeadow resident talks almost as much about high-tech manufacturing or battling the opioid crisis, rail was a marquee issue of his 2014 campaign. It draws crowds to his events from well-outside his 1st Hampden & Hampshire Senate district.

Whether fearful or envious, some frustrating the study may also prefer Lesser’s other ambitions from leaving the station.

Lesser and his agenda on the spot. (WMassP&I)

Lesser and company know this, too, hence the change in tactics.  But there is a bigger picture, too.  Those familiar with this latest push sense momentum.  Earlier this year, it wasn’t just political allies and constituents backing the bill.

Big names in business could lend their name in support of the study bill Tuesday, too. Some of such import they can match Picknelly’s relevance in Baker’s circle. Their interests lie well above the paranoia of competition or political gamesmanship

The economic case for a better connection between East and West is becoming more apparent. Despite projects like Union Station and CRRC, concerns about retaining talent to work in the white-collar and even some blue-collar positions in the Pioneer are on the rise. Then there is the case better rail service could be a release valve for Boston’s transit and housing problems.

Ironically, a lot could be riding on a single, chartered round trip bus ride to Boston.