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Eric Lesser Talks East-West Rail

A Q+A with the State Senator about economic development, transportation, and housing.

By Charlotte Murtishaw

Recently, conversations around the idea of a high-speed rail connecting the Berkshires, Pioneer Valley, and Boston have been picking up steam among legislators and the press. The effort, dubbed the East-West Rail, has been in the works for years and is spearheaded by State Senator Eric Lesser of the 1st Hampden & Hampshire district. Lesser argues that rail connectivity across MA would stimulate the economy in western Massachusetts and relieve pressure on the Boston housing market by drawing the population farther west (to this end, Lesser has also proposed offering a $10,000 incentive to non-residents who wish to purchase homes in Western Mass). The plan has incited some minor sparring in newspapers across the state; a recent Boston Globe op-ed by Joan Vennochi was plastered with the subhead “With high-speed rail, plus a major attitude adjustment, Western Mass could be Greater Boston’s new hot neighborhood.” The Daily Hampshire Gazette’s editorial board expressed support for the rail but lashed back at the tone, writing “it’s clear … that Vennochi doesn’t know much about the area.”

The Shoestring spoke to Lesser about the East-West rail and other facets of his views on transit, housing, and economic policy. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The East-West Rail Advisory Committee will hold a public meeting tonight, February 12th, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the UMass Center (1500 Main St., Springfield), Classroom 014.

I know you’ve done this a million times, but if you wouldn’t mind summarizing the East-West rail proposal in just a couple sentences, I’d appreciate that.

If you look at the 30,000 feet view, at the high level, the overall economy of Massachusetts is of course very strong. But if you peel the layers back a little bit, what you discover is there’s really two states in Massachusetts, and almost all of the growth in our economy—the job growth, the innovation—is being created in a handful of zip codes, really hyper-concentrated in eastern Mass. And the rest of the state, especially western Mass, we have an economy that in many respects looks more like Pennsylvania or Michigan than it does Boston or San Francisco or Manhattan. That’s the challenge for us.

It’s the inverse of the challenge that eastern Mass has in the metro Boston area: The out-of-control cost of housing and awful congestion and traffic and a really taxed public transit system, the MBTA. Rail fixes both of those issues and lets each region access each other. It gives eastern Mass access to that great quality of life and that great cost of living we know in western Mass, and gives western Mass access to those high-paying jobs and that really fast-growing economy. And it would be the single biggest environmental project the state has ever created, taking tens of thousands of cars off the road.

What exactly will the feasibility study be looking at and addressing? 

[The feasibility study has] been a major effort. The cost will be over a million dollars, and it will be a full engineering analysis and feasibility analysis. Our hope is that we’re going to get back a real blueprint of how we can make rail a reality, and it will hopefully give us ridership estimates and also cost estimates.

[ed. note: On Feb. 6th, after this conversation, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation released the partial results of a feasibility study which outlined six potential East-West route options and placed an estimate of anywhere from $2 to $25 billion. MassDOT expects to release the completed feasibility study this spring.]

I wanted to ask if you’re familiar with the studies showing a strong link between new transit hubs and gentrification. As the East-West rail is implemented, how do you plan to address and mitigate that particular side effect? 

Our goal is not to make western Mass like eastern Mass. I grew up here; I’m raising my family here. We know western Mass is a unique place, and we want to keep it that way. Our development is going to look unique to our region. There’s a lot we can do in a very proactive way around transit-oriented development, around ensuring equitable transportation access.

For instance, pricing the train in a competitive way so low-income people can still receive benefits that higher-income people can. We need to do a lot, for example, to integrate and improve the PVTA service so that the PVTA can help with what’s called last-mile connectivity, so connecting our neighborhoods all throughout Chicopee, Holyoke, Springfield, the surrounding region, on connecting those communities into the rail station and vice-versa so everybody gets access to it.

And it needs to be done around other efforts in conjunction with affordable housing, around affordable development and transit-oriented development to make sure that the benefits are spread to the most people. The main thing here is no one thing happens in a vacuum, so we’re not going to get the train and wash our hands of it and be done. The train is a catalyst for other opportunities and other solutions that will become possible from that transit link.

The other thing I would point out is western Mass is in a unique position. For example, at its peak, in the 1950s and 60s, Springfield had 190,000 people living in it. Now it has about 150,000. Chicopee had about 60,000 people, and now has about mid-40,000s. Part of what we need to do is catalyze and bring development so that we’re keeping and attracting our families, and doing that in an equitable way that helps rehabilitate abandoned homes, that helps improve and expand access to high-quality housing, and that I feel very confident can be done in an inclusive way that brings everybody along.

How do you feel about rent control? [Rent control has been illegal in Massachusetts since a 1994 ballot initiative.]

In theory, I’ve supported it; it’s something I would support. It depends on the context. My grandmother lived in a rent-controlled apartment in New York City, in the Italian immigrant community until she was 90 years old, until the day she died. She was born in the apartment she died in at the age of 90. So my family, my grandmother, was a beneficiary of that policy, so it’d be something—it’d certainly be something we’d be open to. I mean, I know that there’s a lot of conversations about it in Boston where rents are very very high.

I’ve read about your incentive plan to give Bostonians with telecommuting jobs a $10,000 incentive to move to the western part of the state, and I’m wondering about the logic of giving that money as incentive rather than using it to address issues here. 

We can’t keep doing the things we’ve always done if we’re gonna get the same results. We’re try[ing] to stimulate and build and enhance development across the board. So, just as a quick correction, you said it’s a program for Bostonians—it’s a program, actually, for anyone who moves to western Mass to invest, buy a home, to raise a family here so it could be someone from New York, it could be someone from San Francisco, it could be someone from overseas. The idea here is if you have an abandoned house or if you have a home that has been off the tax rolls for a long time, and you have a family that’s willing to come in, move in, buy the house, fix it up and work remotely for their old employer, a $10,000 incentive is going to repay itself multiple times over very quickly just on the property tax alone. And that’s towards other development, because that person is now shopping in local stores, eating in local restaurants, buying products in local areas.

And again, it’s a pilot program. We set it up as a three-year pilot capped at no more than a million dollars to really just see if it triggers the kind of development and if it triggers the kind of impact that we’re hoping for. It was modeled off of a pilot program that was done in Vermont. Frankly it’s helped with marketing, which is another big element of this: We gotta get the word out about western Mass, we gotta get the word out about what a great place this is, and the hope is that investment will follow that.

You mentioned PVTA before as a connector for the high-speed rail, but the PVTA system has been in decline for several years and suffers greatly from underbudgeting from the state. How do you plan to address that and advocate for a more robust PVTA budgeting system?

Yeah, so that’s a very important issue, it’s something the western Mass delegation has been focused on for a long time. And you’re right, I mean frankly every year it’s a fight—we’ve had to  override vetoes from the governor multiple times. And for my communities that I represent, Springfield and Chicopee and the towns around those two cities, for many people this is their only option. They’re dependent because they often don’t own vehicles. Two-thirds of the MBTA riders are low-income, and 2/3rds are transit-dependent, and about 60 percent are people of color, so there’s a very important social justice and civil rights element to this as well. What we’ve done is set up a regional transit authorities’ caucus, so now the legislators from different communities that are served by the regional transit agencies have been working together to synchronize our ask, so that there’s one voice.

And I was just wondering, just because I haven’t seen this anywhere and I know you can’t give a hard answer to this, but what do you imagine the approximate price of a commuter ticket on the East-West rail would be?

I think it’s too early to say that. Like I mentioned, it all relies on the study. I think it’s important to point out that the ticket would likely need to be subsidized; transit everywhere in the world operates in part by rider fees, but also in large part by public support and the pricing needs to be accessible for people. That’s a very important value and that’s a very important goal we have to have moving forward.

Part of your pitch for this plan is about the affordability of western Massachusetts, which is affordable in comparison to Boston in many ways. However, I do have many friends at different stages in their life who struggle to stay afloat in this rental market or even afford to purchase their own home, and I was just wondering as the senator for western Massachusetts how you plan to help these people. 

I mean, of course. As a young parent myself, as a young family – my daughters are three and six years old, I understand that. So I think part of it is we need to do two things. We need to create more starter housing for folks who are trying to enter the market, we need to create more housing at more price points, which means more mixed-use housing. Western Mass for example has a shortage of apartments, there’s a shortage of condos, there’s a lot of standalone housing with a big garage, and that’s often not accessible for people. So we need to do a better job developing that.

I know you expressed some support for a Springfield bid for the Amazon headquarters, and that the entire headquarters plan was roundly criticized by many communities because of the amount of subsidies it would give Amazon, which is not a company that pays federal taxes. Do you support–

I’m not sure I ever- I’m not sure I ever weighed in specifically on Springfield as an Amazon location but anyway, keep going, sorry.

[ed. note: In the past, Lesser has expressed support for bringing the headquarters to Massachusetts and western Mass on more than one occasion.] 

Thank you. Yep. And so I was just wondering what your position on offering subsidies to different companies in an effort to bring them to western Massachusetts or help them establish here is. 

I’ve actually been very outspoken about the GE tax incentives for placing GE in Boston. I’ve been a critic of that. But what I’ve said repeatedly about the GE deal is there’s no reason to provide incentives to locate a company in a region of the state that is already growing very fast, that is already incredibly expensive, and is already one of the wealthiest areas in the entire country. It doesn’t really achieve any real social goal and frankly it actually exacerbates a lot of the challenges that the Boston area was already having—infrastructure and transit access and housing and affordability.

I don’t know if you followed all this, about a year ago, I had filed legislation to have [the GE incentive] money re-invested into job training programs for manufacturing, because right now in Massachusetts we have wait lists at almost all of our vocational schools. These are training programs that train people to be installers, to be tool and die makers, to work at the facilities I just mentioned—making solar panels or wind turbines, and by definition, that’s geographically spread out over the whole state, and that’s training people and investing in people rather than in corporate tax breaks.

Charlotte Murtishaw is a regular contributor to The Shoestring.  Flower train postcard accessed from the New York Public Library Digital Collection.


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