Cover Story

Transit Transformation

Region Sees Economic Potential in Rail Service

BW-0614c-1Timothy Brennan calls the return of passenger rail service to the Pioneer Valley a “new frontier.”

That’s a phrase that has been used in other cities across the nation where revitalization has occurred as a result of the introduction or expansion of commuter rail service, which caters to the growing demand among young people and Baby Boomers for housing in downtowns complete with shops, restaurants, entertainment, and a good transportation system. And Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, believes it applies here.

Next year, after more than a decade of planning and infrastructure work, Amtrak’s Vermonter passenger train will run again along a direct route from Springfield to St. Albans, Vt., with stops in Holyoke, Northampton, and Greenfield. In addition, beginning in 2016, there will be more than 25 trips a day between Springfield and Hartford.

“We think this will be a game changer,” said Brennan. “There is a palpable sense of excitement about it, and the Valley has the disposition to be very supportive of this endeavor.”

Kevin Kennedy, Springfield’s chief development officer, agreed.

“As vehicular and truck traffic grows, it may become more relaxing to take a train with wi-fi service where people can use their cell phones and tablets or sit with a coffee, muffin, and their laptop and get some work done,” he said, pointing to the congestion that will be caused by the Mass. Department of Transportation’s three-year rebuild of the I-91 viaduct between State Street and the I-291 ramps as just one of many reasons why rail service may see a surge in popularity.

Tim Brennan

Tim Brennan says expanded rail service could be a game changer for the region.

In addition, the world of work is changing, and more people are telecommuting and reporting into an office only on occasion, Brennan noted, making it more possible for someone to live in Greater Springfield and work in New York, Boston, or another metropolitan area.

“Working from home is a growing phenomenon, and people could have a job in New York City, live here, and take the train to meetings,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, in some parts of California, employers allow employees to log into work via their laptops during their commute.

Marcos Marrero, Holyoke’s director of Planning and Economic Development, says it’s critical to keep up with societal change, and commuter rail service is part of this equation.

“Rail is the future for the Hartford-Springfield metropolitan area, and rail service is key to economic development in the Pioneer Valley,” he said. “Interconnected cities offer fertile ground for economic activity, as it allows them to prosper through the movement of people, products, and services. It’s important to go beyond our parochialism and understand globalization, and if we want to be part of what we know is successful in so many other metropolitan areas, we have to be interconnected and part of that fabric.”

This belief reverberates in Greenfield, and Linda Dunlavy says Franklin County has recognized the importance of restoring rail service to the area for more than a decade.

“We haven’t had a rail stop here since about 1985, but have always known that travel by passenger rail is really important to our economic development and quality of life,” said the executive director of the Franklin County Council of Governments (FCCG). “It has been one of the goals in all of our long-term planning, even though a decade ago it seemed like wishful thinking.”

Experts also hope commuter rail will boost local tourism, as it has in Vermont and other states. “Tourism is an export business, and Vermont does a very good job of marketing packages to people in New York that include Amtrak and hotel stays,” said Marrero. “Having a rail system allows that to happen.”

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at the reasons behind the reopening of the rail line, and also at the hopes and expectations of communities that find themselves on what is being called a path to progress.

On the Right Track

Passenger rail service existed to and from Springfield for decades before it was halted in 1989. At that time, Amtrak deemed the 49 miles of track running to the Vermont border through Greenfield in too great a state of disrepair to continue using.

AMtrakVermonterMapAlthough some freight traffic continued, train speed was limited to 10 mph. “The principal reason the track was used was to deliver coal to the Mount Tom power plant in Holyoke, which will soon be closing,” Brennan said.

But Vermont found the rail service, which extends today from St. Albans to Washington, D.C., so lucrative that it chose to make a sizable investment to continue it. “The Vermonter is enormously popular, especially during ski season and during the summer,” Brennan said, adding that Vermont views it as an economic-development vehicle.

However, in order to keep the train running, it had to be diverted from Springfield to the east in Palmer, where a switchback sends it north. That switchback has always been problematic, as it takes 30 minutes, and passengers cannot leave the train.

As a result, more than a decade ago, Vermont approached the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission asking for help in restoring the deteriorated track. “Congressman John Olver was enthusiastic about it and was able to get an earmark for a study,” Brennan said.

At that point, the PVPC became the custodial agency responsible for moving the project forward, and a consultant was hired in December 2009 to determine what it would take to revitalize the track and analyze its return on investment.

The timing proved serendipitous, as the PVPC had the plan ready when President Obama allocated $8 billion in grant money for high-speed, inner-city rail projects.

The state’s application for a $73 million grant to rebuild the aging rail corridor, which would allow trains to travel in excess of 75 mph, was accepted, and a construction plan began to take shape.

“The work is being implemented as we speak and is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year,” Brennan said.

Although he is optimistic about the return of passenger rail service in the area, he said it will need to be expanded down the road to satisfy expectations.

“It will be great to get the Vermonter back, but there will only be one train a day in each direction, so we are working in earnest with partners to get more service up and down the valley to attract commuters,” Brennan said.

Still, experts predict that, if the MGM casino is built in Springfield’s South End as planned, it could generate an enormous amount of traffic. This development, coupled with construction work on the I-91 viaduct, which will begin in 2015 and take at least three years, could prompt people to use the train.

“If there is more north and south rail service, it could serve as a relief valve; our challenge now is how to add more trains between Springfield and Greenfield,” Brennan continued, explaining that an expansion will cost $30 million, but the PVPC is working with the Mass. Dept of Transportation and the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) on that goal, and funding could come from the state transportation bond bill passed in April.

“The biggest issue is that the rail corridor is owned by Pan Am Rail, which is a division of Norfolk Southern Rail,” he explained. “The state reached a verbal agreement to buy it for $17 million, but it hasn’t happened yet.”

Still, action is underway, and a letter has been sent to the secretary of Transportation, asking if the MBTA could donate locomotives and passenger cars that are being retired to the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority. They could be refurbished, Brennan said, and the final step would be to find an operator to run them. He added that a connection from Vermont to Montreal is also on the drawing board, and there is keen interest in making that happen, but it is not a priority.

Accelerating Growth

Meanwhile, progress has been made in the form of new, multi-million-dollar intermodal transportation stations, and Union Station in Springfield is undergoing the first phase of its long-awaited restoration.

Kevin Kennedy

Kevin Kennedy says MGM Springfield, if it comes to fruition, would be one of many factors that could drive use of rail service in Western Mass.

Kennedy said the Union Station project has generated excitement, and the restoration of rail service is one of three ingredients — a major development investment, a significant transportation project, and a large-scale, market-rate housing development downtown — necessary in the revitalization of a city such as Springfield.

MGM represents the first element in that equation, and if the casino is built, it is expected to create 2,200 construction jobs and 3,000 permanent jobs, in addition to vendor activity. “People could work in Springfield and live in Windsor Locks, Conn. or Northampton, but we will need to be able to get all of the workers in and out of the city,” said Kennedy, adding that rail service could help address that need.

The third element (housing) is also expected to come to fruition. “We anticipate a major housing announcement for downtown soon,” Kennedy told BusinessWest, adding that MGM’s plans include a trolley system with stops throughout downtown Springfield, which ties into the entertainment factor that makes a downtown attractive.

“Rather than focusing on MGM as a gaming place, think of it as an outdoor skating rink and place of entertainment which ties in with venues already in Springfield — the MassMutual Center, City Hall, and CityStage,” Kennedy said.

But he added that the rail system will eventually need to connect to New York City as well as the north for revitalization in Springfield to be successful.

Marrero also views the restoration of commuter-rail service as a key factor in Holyoke’s economic development.

“The Vermonter route runs along a major spinal cord, and the realignment will cut down on the time it takes to get to Vermont while providing service to Holyoke, Northampton, and Greenfield; Chicopee could also have a stop in the future,” he said, adding that he believes rail service will make the area more attractive as a place to live, work, or establish a business.

Holyoke is already moving in that direction, said Marrero, citing the success of Open Square in the city’s Innovation District, which is home to 50 businesses located a block from where the new rail station will be built.

“Vertitech Corp. moved into Open Square last fall, and they have plans to open in the New York metropolitan area,” he noted, adding that employees could take the train to meetings to and from either site. “We also have a lot of investment opportunity nearby in architecturally attractive buildings, which could lead to a walkable, dense neighborhood rich in interaction, which all fits together with rail service.”

Research on transit-oriented development shows that property within a one-mile radius of a rail station tends to be popular for mixed-use development. “So, rail has been my highest priority in terms of projects in the past two years,” Marrero said.

In May 2012, the city procured an architect to design a new, 12,000-square-foot rail station at the corner of Main and Dwight streets, which is the site of the first rail stop in Holyoke. It is expected to be complete by the end of July, and the next step will be to hire a contractor with MassWorks funding to build the $2.4 million structure, which will include new sidewalks leading into the station.

Economic Engines

Today, the $12 million John W. Olver Transit Center in Greenfield, located a few blocks from the heart of downtown, sits ready for rail service. It is the first zero-net-energy transit center in the nation and home to the Franklin County Regional Transit Authority and the FCCG.

Dunlavy and other Franklin County officials are also looking to the future and hope to expand the number of rail trains that stop there.

“When we first envisioned rail service, we only thought about Amtrak,” she explained. “But we hope to add a shuttle service to help employers expand workforce opportunities and help residents expand their opportunities for employment. Not everyone who lives here has a car.”

Passenger rail service is also expected to help with Greenfield’s revitalization, which got a boost a few years ago when new market tax credits and historic tax credits were approved for redevelopment of the upper stories of buildings.

Today, about 10 buildings have added office or residential space to their second floors and have also made aesthetic improvements to their first floors. In addition, the Franklin County Courthouse is undergoing a major renovation, and with the intermodal transit center as an anchor, “our long-term plan is finally coming to fruition,” Dunlavy told BusinessWest.

Pittsfield is also hoping to improve its rail service, and Mayor Daniel Bianchi believes rail “will be great for the area.”

The city’s primary goal is an east-west connection with New York City, and he believes reinstating rail is a viable form of transportation. “But it’s a huge project that involves a multitude of states. It’s a large, complicated issue, and we have to be realistic,” he said, suggesting that, since Connecticut already has good commuter rail service, the state might not be as willing as Massachusetts to make further investments in rail expansion a priority.

However, Community Development Director Douglas Clark envisions people from New York City who don’t own cars taking the train to Pittsfield to enjoy its cultural attractions.

That belief was enhanced when the results of a study conducted by Williams College Economics Professor Stephen Sheppard were made public, showing that the Berkshires could reap $344 million in the first 10 years of passenger train service to and from Gotham.

Unknown Potential

Brennan said Worcester is connected to Boston via rail service run by the MBTA, and it has made a significant difference in the city’s growth and revitalization.

“Worcester is now thought of as an attractive, affordable alternative to living in Boston,” he explained. “It has been an effort that has taken about 15 years, but it has really come together over the past few years. So our feeling is that we should anticipate a similar outcome once there is a high level of rail service available here.

“There will be talent shortages in the next decade, and we need to be connected so we can leverage these connections,” Brennan concluded. “We have to make sure we are well-positioned for the 21st century.”

With expanded rail service, he believes the region will have the right economic-development vehicle to meet that goal.

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