Our Opinion: Little engine that could isn't quite to Berkshires

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Kudos to Governor Charlie Baker, who on Tuesday acknowledged the reality that Worcester is not the last outpost of civilization from which intrepid travelers set off to navigate the trackless wastes of Western Massachusetts. Having vetoed even so much as a study during his first term of east-west rail service connecting Boston to the hinterlands, the governor announced — from the remote frontier settlement of Springfield, of all places — that he is now backing such a study along with the institution of pilot rail service within the Pioneer Valley (Eagle, June 13)

It could be that in an election year, someone reminded the governor that there are votes to be garnered out in the Wild West. The reason for his enlightened outlook, however, isn't as important as the fact that the chief executive of the Commonwealth has now thrown his support behind the concept of east-west rail, and things have a way of moving forward once they are supported by the Big Dog.

However, the emphasis of the study is upon Springfield, with service to points farther west included as an afterthought. Speedy rail service connecting potential future residents to high-paying jobs in the east has been a dream of the region, and the interest in servicing Springfield — a mere 55 miles from Pittsfield — amounts to an acknowledgment by policymakers that the concept has merit.

Indeed, the Connecticut Valley region has become so important that the Baker administration also announced that the MBTA, which all state residents (including those in the Berkshires) support through sales taxes, will be underwriting a pilot rail project connecting Springfield to Greenfield via Northampton and Holyoke. Those trains will begin running by spring 2019.

While we are delighted that our compatriots in the Springfield-Greenfield corridor are belatedly being included in the Greater Massachusetts Co-Prosperity Sphere, inequities remain. Eliminating Holyoke from consideration, since that town is only about eight miles from downtown Springfield, the combined populations of Northampton and Greenfield add up to only slightly more than Pittsfield's. It may be that existing track and commuter patterns make a north-south Pioneer Valley pilot more practical at this juncture, but the distance from Greenfield to Springfield is only 15 miles less than Pittsfield to Springfield. A two-year MBTA-financed link from Springfield to Pittsfield — as Greenfield is soon to enjoy — would have raised consciousness about the possibilities of living in one region and working in another, and developed habits that might have converted such a connection from a pilot study into an imperative.

U.S. Representative Richard Neal, who represents both the Berkshires and Springfield, was on hand at the governor's side Tuesday even though both the study and pilot project are state initiatives. In a statement, he said that he has "always believed that improved and enhanced rail service between Springfield and Boston has the potential to be a game changer for our region." With all due respect to the Congressman, if his efforts did have something to do with enacting these welcome developments, then his work is not finished. His declaration, while accurate, leaves out the corollary that what is good for Springfield should also be good for the Berkshires. He cannot, and should not, rest as long as a large portion of his district remains underserved by the state transportation grid.

As for Governor Baker, we hope his next transportation vision includes panoramic mountain views of his state's westernmost county.


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