The Massachusetts West to East Rail and What it Means for Housing Development

February 1, 2021

- By Zach Ryan

As Massachusetts looks to address its longstanding housing affordability crisis, it is important to understand the role transportation plays in development. It is one of the core principles for sustainable development that the Commonwealth has issued. MassDOT and the MBTA are crucial agencies in working to address the sustainable development of housing. In 2018, MassDOT published the Massachusetts State Rail Plan, which among other issues included a recommendation to evaluate a “Western Massachusetts to Boston Passenger Rail Service Study.”

MassDOT Studies the East-West Rail

MassDOT has since completed a draft of the rail study report in October 2020 and has been gathering public feedback to finalize the report. The two years in between have seen many meetings with the public and those serving on the East-West Study Advisory Committee. These meetings have been used to determine different routes for the rail line and complimentary transit options along the corridor. Three options that have been taken off the table would have used buses to connect Pittsfield and Springfield. These proposals had steadfast opposition from state Representative William “Smitty” Pignatelli of Lee, State Senator Adam Hinds of Pittsfield, and U.S. Representative Richard Neal of Springfield. All three individuals sit on the advisory committee and provide important insight into what is possible for a project of this size. Through their feedback as well as others on the advisory committee, MassDOT was able to determine the three Final Alternatives that included the preferred characteristics. They were also able to make several recommendations for further studies of this project, including a more detailed study of economic and community benefits and impacts, and evaluating funding opportunities.

Federal Funding

Current cost estimates range between $2 billion and $6 billion depending on the alternative selected. Due to this high cost, it is important to receive feedback from local, state, and federal officials. U.S. Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren have also endorsed the East-West Rail project, and according to Senator Markey’s website he has introduced legislation to help reduce much of the strict criteria that many rail projects face. The Building Rail Across Intercity Networks To Ride Around Interior of the Nation (BRAIN TRAIN) Act, would authorize $5 billion annually, for a total of $25 billion over five years, to invest in “high performance” intercity passenger rail service according to Markey’s website. Proposals with similar language have been introduced in the House of Representatives, including the American High-Speed Rail Act which was introduced by Representative Seth Moulton (MA-06). This bill would help create a national high-speed rail system by investing around $200 billion federal dollars through grants administered by the Federal Railroad Administration. Rep. Moulton and Sen. Markey’s bills represent a step forward to securing funding for projects such as the East-West Rail.

Transit-Oriented Development

Along with improved transportation, the East-West Rail project could result in increased development near the proposed rail stops. Communities like Palmer and Chester, which are slated to be intermediate stops along the rail line, could see the beginnings of transit-oriented development. This is more than just a policy buzzword and has several examples in Eastern Massachusetts of its benefits. The city of Somerville’s Davis Square Red Line stop and the town of Canton’s Canton Center commuter rail station represented key components for those communities’ downtown redevelopment. Through the use of transit-oriented development, Somerville, Canton, and other communities were able to more efficiently use existing land and support the revitalization of neighborhoods around the transit stations. Transit-oriented development has many benefits including the expansion of housing opportunities, through promoting the development of townhouses, condominiums, and apartments. Other public incentives exist as well, including adopting District Improvement Financing (DIF) and Tax Incentive Financing (TIF) districts. Homebuyers can also take advantage of location efficient mortgages, available through Fannie Mae, for purchasing homes near transit.

Where Do We Go From Here?

As with most policy projects, funding is crucial to be able to continue the work. The East-West Rail received a boost after Governor Baker signed into law most of a $16 billion transportation bond bill on Friday, January 15, 2021. Of the $16 billion, $50 million has been earmarked for the East-West Rail project for the planning, design, engineering, and construction. MassDOT will continue to work with the Advisory Committee to determine the best options for this project and report back to the Governor and the Legislature to ensure everyone is aware of what this project entails. It will be a while before a proposed timeline is issued as MassDOT and the MBTA are in the midst of several other projects, but the East-West Rail offers an interesting opportunity to spark development west of Worcester.