Are We on the Right Track with Rail?


By Paul Peter Nicolai

The public needs a more complete and honest discussion of the likely costs and benefits of commuter rail service between Springfield and Greenfield.

Most of the advertised benefits for commuter rail service come from a 2009 feasibility study done to justify rebuilding the rails from Springfield to Brattleboro. Like most of these studies, the projections come from computer models. I was on the committee that issued the study.

Because we got money to rebuild the rails, we have actual numbers. The first phase of the feasibility study happened.  The Vermonter now runs on the line.  We can compare what is actually happening to what the computer model said might happen. It turns out the computer model projections are not even close:

• The ridership projection is 73% off;

• The projection of how many new people would be riding as opposed to how many people would be using trains instead of other transportation is 99.4% wrong; and

• The study’s capital cost projection was only 20% to 50% of the actual bill.

The study said moving the Vermonter to the new track would increase ridership by 98 passengers a day. The actual number is 26 passengers a day.

The study made assumptions about how many of the additional riders would be new riders — people new to the market.  These new-rider numbers are the basis for projections on how many additional people would live in the towns on the line, how many additional new jobs would be created in those towns, and how many millions of dollars of new economic activity those towns would see.

What actually happened is there are practically no new riders. While the Vermonter picked up 788 new passengers a month, private-sector bus services lost 761 passengers a month. This means the actual number of new people is 27 a month.

When you use actual numbers to inform the computer-generated projection, what we could reasonably expect is commuter rail service would have 540 riders a day, not the projected 2,000. When you apply the experience of what is happening with people getting off other travel means and onto trains, we should reasonably expect about three new riders a day.

Three new riders a day have no economic impact. The 537 riders who stop using other transportation to use the trains do not create new economic impact. They are already here.

On the cost side, even at 2,000 riders a day, it’s projected that between $3 million and $4 million in tax dollars will have to be paid annually to run the trains. That is after $100 million in tax dollars to buy them.

Because we now know ridership is much more likely to be about 25% of the computer-generated projection, the tax dollars needed to support these trains is much more likely to be around $4.5 million a year.

The MBTA is going to run these trains. MBTA is funded by a combination of state money and contributions from communities where MBTA stations are located.  When you apply what MBTA does in the rest of the state to this new service, Springfield, Holyoke, Northampton, and Greenfield will have to contribute a total of around $1.7 million in property-tax dollars a year — somewhere around 7% of their total DPW budgets.

So, the bottom line is that Springfield/Greenfield commuter rail will:

• Have actual ridership of about 25% of what was projected;

• Create no new economic activity. It may actually be negative when you count the bus drivers and maintenance people who will lose their jobs; and

• Require an operating subsidy about 150% of what was originally projected, including $1.7 million a year from local property taxes.

Is it worth spending $100 million to buy trains and then $4.5 million a year to run them so an additional 90 people a month are attracted? Aren’t there more important things to do with scarce tax dollars?

Paul Peter Nicolai is president of the Springfield-based Nicolai Law Group; [email protected]

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