EDITORIAL: Peter, Don’t Fear the (Near-Monopoly) Reaper…
This week Masslive reported bus line magnate Peter Picknelly had emailed Governor Charlie Baker shortly before the governor effectively vetoed a study on developing and implementing reliable rail service between Boston and Springfield. The study’s fate, a priority of Longmeadow Senator Eric Lesser, remains in doubt as the legislature counts down to the end of this session tonight, Sunday evening.
A Springfield business titan, Picknelly has the juice to lobby the governor—directly it seems—and it is his right to do so on behalf of his business. However, to upend this policy—a mere investigation of how to implement better rail service—is misplaced. Picknelly put his business ahead of his community and, ironically, without much benefit to Peter Pan Bus Lines, the empire his family built.
This blog has long supported Lesser’s goal of implementing better rail service between Boston and Springfield. A potential economic boon to the region—and the state writ large—it could undo the consequences of William Pynchon’s fateful decision to settle so far from Boston.
A tiny state, the distance between the 413 and its capital can seem greater than the one between Los Angeles and Sacramento. This is a problem economically, socially and culturally exacerbated by the rise of Boston’s economy and decline of Western Massachusetts’s.
Picknelly’s fear of a state-subsidized alternative transportation is not illogical. However, the new service is not intended to compete with his business. Hopefully, it would create an entirely new market of commuters settling in the 413 and working in Boston.
Peter Pan has a “commuter” bus service some say is underutilized. Confined by mind-numbing traffic, this blog cannot fathom how such a service could be feasible either. Already 90 minutes is probably at the upper end of what average commuters in this region would suffer. Another 30-60 minutes of traffic inside Route 128 leaves the whole concept inviable.
Rail solves this solution by taking commuters off the road and adding capacity to the conduits feeding people into Beantown.
We are not naïve. This will not be easy. The state bought the Boston-Worcester leg of the line from CSX, which still owns the track from Worcester through Albany and beyond. CSX is unlikely to sell any more.
Millions in track upgrades capable of accommodating added freight and passenger trains will be necessary. There are also politics about how schedules will be structured to make Springfield trains viable, while maintaining effective service on the many commuter stops east of Worcester.
While all of these challenges are surmountable, Picknelly’s business’s need not be a problem, too. A quick search for Peter Pan bus tickets show nine buses running from Springfield to Boston. Some schedules are as long as Amtrak’s lumbering Lake Shore Limited. Others are only slightly longer than a direct car trip.
Many buses offer connections to places not easily served by train. For example Peter Pan has long stopped at the MBTA’s Green Line Riverside station. Despite adjacent track, mainline rail service there is probably impractical. These point-to-point services would continue to be an asset to Picknelly’s company, a compliment to expanded rail, not necessarily a direct competitor to it.
Even in an era when Amtrak has increased its hold on the Bos-Wash corridor, intercity bus service remains viable, competitive and sought after. Were regular rail service between Springfield and Boston to materialize, Peter Pan may need to change, but it will have a place in our transportation collage.
Instead, he made a power play, one of many he has made since taking over the company from his late father. He has hosted fundraisers for Baker, so it is no surprise the governor lent the bus mogul an ear. Too many local pols listen to (or fear) familiar voices like Picknelly’s. What has that earned this region in the last 20 years?
Picknelly might argue that Baker’s alternative study language, which looks at all transportation methods, gives him the seat he needs at the table. True, but Baker’s wording amounts to a stall that may not get the answers necessary to make this a reality. It should be rejected.
Picknelly should be consulted and considered as a pillar of the business community, but not treated like the Springfield bus station or Monarch Place—technically owned by brother Paul’s company—is Delphi.
It’s not clear who leaked the email between Baker and Picknelly. Unless it was an exercise in raw ego, this blog cannot see why Picknelly would have wanted a story that mostly showcases the politics of power and access in Massachusetts.
We do not feel Picknelly’s status quo—or anybody else’s—serves Western Massachusetts well. We need to solve this as a commonwealth and reorder the map.
About 150 years ago, elevated trains crawled up Manhattan, followed by the subways. They created the modern Upper East and West Sides and outer boroughs. In other words, new connections transformed the city entirely.
Restored mainline rail service across the width of this commonwealth could do the same. Whether the legislature revives Lesser’s study tonight or not, Picknelly and his company should embrace this future, not oppose it.