by Karen Christensen
Reading the news, you’d think that cities and rural areas are natural enemies. Rural regions are either ignored entirely or thrown the kind of payout that rankles the urban and suburban taxpayers who have to foot the bill. Think, for example, of the $12-billion farm bailout or rural-county exemptions from safety-net work requirements.
Connectivity is the key to getting beyond this zero-sum game. Throughout history, cities and rural areas have been interdependent. In the 21st-century the right kind of interdependence can increase innovation and economic activity, and improve quality of life.
I run a global publishing company in Great Barrington, Massachusetts and founded the Train Campaign in 2011. Our organization believes that the future of rural America, as well as smaller cities and towns, depends on the connectivity offered by freight and passenger rail because rail supports jobs and connects people.
Just as rail connectivity has drawn creative and knowledge workers to the small cities and towns on both sides of the Hudson River, we now have in Connecticut an opportunity to revitalize the western part of the state by restoring passenger rail service on the Housatonic Line, also known as the Berkshire Line, which runs along the Housatonic River in western Connecticut, terminating in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Rail-oriented development attracts new permanent residents and job-creating entrepreneurs, and reduces carbon emissions while supporting agriculture and light industry.
Rail is a key to solving the affordable housing crisis that plagues otherwise thriving cities like New York and Boston.
Rail connectivity will enable a new generation of urban dwellers, who don’t have and don’t want personal automobiles, to benefit from outdoor recreational opportunities and historic and cultural venues.
This is an active freight line today. Most of the track is owned by Massachusetts and Connecticut. It will take 3-5 years and an estimated $200-250 million to restore passenger service from New York City to Pittsfield, replacing the old ties and jointed rail (some a hundred years old) with modern welded rail.
The proposed service will provide eight round trips a day, originating and terminating in New York. From Grand Central Station, the route follows the Harlem Metro-North line to Southeast and then the Maybrook Line to Danbury. From there it passes through Connecticut and Massachusetts, with proposed stops at New Milford, Kent, Cornwall Bridge, and Canaan, CT, and then moves on to Great Barrington, Lee, and Pittsfield, MA.
And some of the work is already underway. In 2014, Massachusetts allotted $35 million to replace 30 miles of rail and replace old ties on all 37 miles. This work - a major rural infrastructure project - began in July 2018.
Massachusetts is committed to spending an additional $78.8 million for signaling and other necessary upgrades for passenger service, but is waiting for Connecticut to participate in the project.
Commuter needs are a major concern throughout the southern part of Connecticut. There is tremendous interest in passenger rail in New Milford and Danbury, as well as a considerable public support in the rural northwest corner of Connecticut, where an online petition a couple of years ago generated some 5,000 signatures.
To be sure, the year-round population of Litchfield County is only about 190,000. But rural areas benefit large numbers of visitors, and the cost of restoring the Berkshire Line is a small fraction of what a major urban rail project requires. There are fewer impediments, and potential return on investment can come quickly.
Many new passenger rail projects have found that ridership far exceeds expectations, and the Berkshire Line is particularly promising because it will connect southern Connecticut and New York City with routes to Albany and Boston: a new rural-urban network that will be a model for 21st-century living.
Karen Christensen is an American entrepreneur, environmentalist, and author. She is owner and CEO of Berkshire Publishing Group, a member of the National Committee on United States-China Relations, and a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania Press.
Housatonic Railroad commissioned reports on projected ridership and economic impact in Berkshire County in 2010. These reports are available at https://barringtoninstitute.org/studies-reports/.
See the last Danbury to Pittsfield passenger run in 1971 in this clip from a documentary we'll be showing at various venues in the spring: https://youtu.be/eyiMh_2NzY4