Railroad plan for passenger service to New York City promises great rewards
KENT —The official release of an economic benefits analysis completed for the Housatonic Railroad Company’s Pittsfield-to-New York City passenger service proposal was released Aug. 23 at an informational meeting at Kent Town Hall. About 10 people attended, a mix of town officials, regional planners, the press and a representative from the office of Congressman Chris Murphy (D-5). They were able to take a look at the results of the benefits analysis by Stephen Sheppard, director of the Center for Creative Community Development. Sheppard used information compiled in a survey of a diverse cross section of current and prospective train riders conducted by Market Street Research of Northampton, Mass.The report projects millions of dollars in annual revenues and economic benefits for the area, that could come from taxes, tourism, jobs (during and after construction), property value increases, reduced wear and tear on roads and increased traffic safety.It is predicted that at least $625 million in added goods and services would be produced and sold here in the first decade of train service.While the economic value is not being argued, town officials and area residents remained skeptical that logistical challenges can be overcome. Housatonic Railroad officials have vowed to work closely with town officials as they continue to work out a very involved plan. A critical issue is determining a fare structure that will balance costs with what commuters and recreational train riders will be willing to pay.What is likely to be a much-debated issue is the placement of train stations. Those that are in place along the route are mostly in private hands and are not conducive to the needs of the times — such as offering nearby space for parking. Even Canaan Union Station in North Canaan, which has continuously operated as a depot to varying degrees since 1872, may not end up in the final mix, according to Housatonic President John Hanlon.The benefits analysis shows a preliminary plan for stations in Pittsfield, Lenoxdale, Lee, Stockbridge and Great Barrington in Massachusetts; and North Canaan, Cornwall Bridge, Kent, New Milford, Brookfield and Danbury in Connecticut.Station needs and related services, such as rental cars, are not the only thing that has changed in the decades since passengers last rode the Berkshire line. “Most of the northbound riders will have the longest rides, two and a half to three and a half hours,” said Colin Pease, vice president of special projects for Housatonic. “They want more than a commuter seat. They will want Wi-Fi and food. It’s not just about finding the right fare, but having the amenities to go with it.”The report — one version of it can be found online at www.hrrc.com — includes numbers such as an estimated $200 million injection by way of jobs and increased spending during three years of construction and rail upgrades. After that, about $100 million per year is expected. Jobs creation, for both the train and related services, is estimated at 445 in Connecticut and 287 in Massachusetts.While town officials may be excited about the potential economic growth, there were concerns about its possible impact. It could become a Catch-22 in that the area will lose its attractiveness for tourists if the train brings a population surge. Pease said that an extensive look at that issue was not conducted because precedent shows it is very unlikely passenger service will bring a marked increase of permanent residents.Cornwall Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman and professional planner Pat Hare noted that a large percentage of homes here are already sold to “splitters,” or part-time residents coming from out of the area. Hanlon said some of their demographic information came from the census, which does not indicate those changes as representing a notable population increase. The projected two million one-way fares per year include passengers going to cultural venues such as Tanglewood in Lenox and students at the many area boarding schools.One interesting concept raised was the potential for some Housatonic Valley Regional High School students to commute and for local residents to move around the Tri-state region by rail.