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May 15, 2019

Lawmakers pitch northern rail route to Western Mass.

Armed with emails and social media comments from more than 700 western Massachusetts residents, two lawmakers pitched the Transportation Committee on studying an east-west passenger rail connection between Boston, Greenfield and North Adams. 

The Department of Transportation is already studying what it would take to implement passenger rail service from Boston to Springfield and Pittsfield, but Sen. Jo Comerford and Rep. Mindy Domb on Tuesday touted a track that would roughly follow Route 2 along the northern part of the state.

Comerford, who filed the bill to direct MassDOT to report by June 2020 on the feasibility of restoring passenger rail linking North Adams, Greenfield and Boston, told the committee that the option for getting between her district and the capital "is the Mass. Pike and/or Route 2." 

She said reestablishing a rail line along the Route 2 corridor -- passenger service ran along the corridor from 1875 until 1968, Comerford said -- would not only make it easier to get into Boston but would give commuters a more environmentally-friendly option.

"Not only is this a relief for people who need it to get to Boston from Western Mass., but it is part of what I hope to be the climate solution that we as a body will broker in the coming session, knowing what we know now about the urgency of the crisis," Comerford said. 

She said a passenger rail link would also benefit economic development efforts in Western Mass. and could help ease the housing crunch in the Boston area. "In Western Mass. we have a different version of that, we have ample housing stock that needs good renters or good buyers," the senator said.

Comerford said that, based on initial conversations with the company that still runs freight trains on the rails between Boston, Greenfield and North Adams, the addition of passenger rail would not necessitate widespread track replacement. Some sections of track might need to be replaced and some new siding may have to be built to allow trains to pass.

"Again, this is a study so it's not a fait accompli," she said.

Domb, whose district falls roughly between the two proposed east-west rail lines, said either route of passenger service would benefit her district and workers who live closer to Boston.

"Based on what I hear from representatives who try to get into Boston in the morning from the suburbs of Boston, it would also benefit traffic coming into Boston to take the Western Massachusetts folks off of the road and put them into rail," she said. "It's time to study so we can increase rail going into Western Massachusetts."

Rep. Paul Tucker, who said it took him two hours and 10 minutes to make the 16-mile commute between his Salem home and the State House on Tuesday, called the idea "very intriguing."

Temporary Registration

The committee on Tuesday also heard from a representative of car dealers, who said Massachusetts' lack of a temporary registration program at the Registry of Motor Vehicles is costing the state money and making life difficult for dealers.

Robert O'Koniewski, executive vice president of the Massachusetts State Automobile Dealers Association, said car dealers have been selling more and more cars over the internet to out-of-state customers. 

Without being able to get a temporary Massachusetts registration for the car, he said most dealers that sell a car to an out-of-state customer end up "flatbedding it or towing it to a location outside the state to where they can meet that customer and the customer can either flatbed it to their home or maybe they have some sort of temporary plate they can slap on it."

Plus, O'Koniewski told the committee, Massachusetts gets no revenue from an internet-initiated sale of a vehicle that is delivered via flatbed or tow truck to a customer in another state.

"As long as you do the out-of-state delivery and you keep track of all the paperwork and everything else ... the commonwealth does not get any sales tax on those transactions," he said. "With a temp tag program, if there are more deliveries of these sales to out-of-state customers actually in Massachusetts, we would be realizing some increase in sales tax revenue."

O'Koniewski said a law signed by Gov. Ed King in the 1970s authorized the RMV to implement a temporary tag program, but it has never happened. He spoke in support of legislation Tuesday that would direct the Registry to implement such a program. 

Rep. William Straus, House chairman of the Transportation Committee, asked O'Koniewski what has kept the RMV from starting the program on its own volition. 

"The bureaucrats at the Registry love inertia and love the lack of action. They love things the way they are," he said. He added, "It's frustrating dealing with an agency that just abhors change and progress."

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