On Friday, July 7, Massachusetts legislators came to a compromise on a $40.2 billion state budget that’s now on the desk of Governor Charlie Baker.
Though the budget slices government spending in the range of $400 million to $500 million, it’s not without its casualties. One such fatality has been touted as a potential boon for the western portion of the Commonwealth, which continues to feel the sting of the state government’s home court advantage in easterly Boston. That is to say, the budget compromise seems to favor Eastern Mass. at the expense of Western Mass.
“This budget is not without pain,” Senate Ways and Means chair Karen Spilka, Democrat, told the AP. “It is clear that the state is facing a shortfall in revenue that will have an impact on real people’s lives.”
Added Democratic Senate President Stan Rosenberg, it’s “the harshest state budget since the last recession.”
For residents of Western Mass. — the region of the state composed of Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire, and parts of Worcester Counties — the budget represents another instance of playing second fiddle to Greater Boston, this time though in the realm of transportation.
In Boston, Beacon Hill recently greenlit a feasibility study to analyze the potential benefits and drawbacks of building a rail link between North Station and South Station, two busy transit hubs in their own right. As this study comes into fruition, the Green Line Extension project out to Medford continues to lay track while taxpayers statewide continue to fund Greater Boston’s hapless subway network.
State Senator Eric Lesser, a Democrat representing Hampden and part of Hampshire Counties, has lobbied hard since 2015 for a high-speed rail train between Springfield and Boston, with stops in Worcester and Palmer, bridging three major New England municipalities which are widely disconnected otherwise.
Lesser filed a bill for the study in early 2016 and it unanimously passed his chamber. Indeed, it passed the House as well but was swiftly vetoed by Baker in a rather peculiar move. While Greater Boston is experiencing an oil boom-like surge in real estate development, made possible in part by relatively sound and viable transportation systems, and as infrastructure across the Commonwealth spirals down the path of decrepitude, it’s questionable for the governor to refuse to even consider studying the effects of rail service between the east and the west. Such a connection could only benefit the metro areas of Worcester and Springfield which are paling in comparison to Greater Boston’s.
It was reported earlier this year that the possible reason Lesser’s bill died at the hands of Baker was because Peter Picknelly, CEO of Peter Pan Bus Lines, wrote a letter to Baker condemning the entire idea, it seems because the study excluded plans for exploring “all modes of transportation.”
I am always disappointed that proposed studies like this only include rail, and never seem to take a comprehensive look at all modes of transportation,” Picknelly wrote. “A balanced approach to transportation would look at a number of alternatives, such as HOV lanes and express bus services.
I simply can’t see the point of spending huge amounts of taxpayer dollars for this kind of rail service, which would adversely impact Peter Pan, an 80-year old, tax-paying business that provides first-class service between Springfield and Boston, and which would also affect the hundreds of good union jobs Peter Pan provides to Western MA area employees.
Lesser subsequently attempted to attach his bill to the state budget, which met its demise on the State House’s cutting room floor during negotiations — for reasons unknown — despite undertaking a sweeping “whistle-stop” tour to garner support for the measure
The Picknelly family, though, is worth a closer look because they’re big-namers in Springfield without being overly, or at least overtly, political. They may even have Charlie Baker and his administration in their pocket.
The Picknellys and Peter Pan have been Springfield staples since the early 1930s. According to data from the Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF), campaign donations from any of the Picknelly clan can only be traced back to 2001 — the family’s 387 donations total $151,940.
It’s no surprise that the Picknellys have pull with the Baker Administration. OCPF data shows that between 2014 and April of 2017, Peter Pan employees have padded Baker’s coffers 19 times totaling $10,250. Most of that is derived from the Picknelly family, who have made 7 donations between 2015 and 2017 totaling $7,000.
Those totals, too, were received solely by Baker.
When factoring in donations to Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, Peter Pan players dumped an additional $7,925 on the administration.
The money trail hardly ends there, however.
When I mentioned the Picknelly family I meant it partially in the way the Corleones call themselves family. Peter Picknelly’s own daughters Alyssa and Lauryn, both denoted as students via the OCPF, have contributed exactly $1,250 each to Polito. Both made two donations apiece. Each was for $250 and $1,000. Both made their two donations on the same day as each other, December 23, 2016 and April 21, 2017, respectively.
While it’s not unfathomable to think that two college women with inherited wealth have thousands of dollars in their bank accounts to spare, questions do abound: Why did they donate the exact same amounts at the exact same times? Why did they donate at all? What do they have to gain from making campaign contributions when it’s not even election season?
Additionally, Peter Pan’s own website mentions several other businesses and interests the Picknellys have waded into over the years.
Of those, Camfour employees have donated $2,100 to Baker and Polito; Belt Technologies, $650; Duval Precision Grinding $1,750; OPAL Real Estate Group, $500; and The Student Prince, $500.
Both Lesser and Rosenberg are now demanding answers as to why the feasibility study was erased from the budget compromise and the Picknellys may not be a bad place to start, despite Peter Picknelly’s denial of such interference.
Wrote the Daily Hampshire Gazette,
“I did no such lobbying this year,” [Picknelly] said. “I sent one letter last year and that was it.”
Still, he opposes the plan, saying the state should study, among other things, van pooling or adding more lanes in high-traffic areas — in addition to high-speed rail. “Study it all,” Picknelly said.
He also said calling the line “high-speed rail” is “disingenuous” because the train would likely stop several times between Springfield and Boston, and travel through hilly terrain. He also said the federal government would “heavily subsidize” any future rail, which would amount to unfair competition for his business.
Already, Picknelly and his company own a virtual monopoly on regional transportation services and in the aforementioned statement he explicitly cites the potential threat from outside intervention in local transportation.
Competition from rival Greyhound was all but eviscerated when, according to Peter Pan, “a business alliance formed which gave Peter Pan more exposure to the traveling public along the entire Northeast corridor – the busiest and most populated travel area in the United States.”
The only passenger rail services currently operating in Western Mass. is the east-west Lake Shore Limited once per day, the north-south Vermonter once per day, and the north-south Northeast Regional (via a connection in New Haven).
Driving between Springfield and Boston can take upwards of two hours driving time in unfavorable conditions.
With the advent of rideshares like Uber and Lyft, commuting in and around cities has become much more tolerable. But when it comes to such distances as between Springfield and Boston, or even Worcester and Boston, rideshares shed their cost-effectiveness.
This situation bodes very well for Peter Pan and the Picknellys because Western Massachusetts is poised on the edge of precipice. Imminent change for much of the region is palpable.
The most significant change will be the opening of MGM Springfield, a $950 million casino expected to inject jobs and municipal improvements into downtown Springfield.
Neighboring Connecticut reported a combined gaming revenue of $1.6 billion in 2015. While Massachusetts has a way to go to even come close to matching those numbers, Connecticut shows that even though gaming revenue is trending downward, it’s still a heft source of income for the state.
In tandem with the Wynn casino slated to open in Everett, just outside Boston, these two facilities will act as the two hubs of gaming in the state. And for those unable or unwilling to try their luck at Wynn’s resort, they’ll have only two options for trekking to Springfield: bus or car.
And for those unable or unwilling to drive Peter Pan will be there, ushering unsuspecting passengers onto its mediocre motorcoaches with sporadic overhead fan functionality and shoddy wifi.
It’s important to note, too, that part of MGM’s deal with the City of Springfield called for the creation of market rate housing which will happen at an historic though dilapidated building at 31 Elm Street on Court Square, just a stone’s throw from the main entrance to the casino.
The building is owned by the Springfield Redevelopment Authority. Peter Picknelly’s OPAL Real Estate Group is to be the developer. Coincidence? In addition to market rate housing, the building is expected to boast retail space and office space (in which Picknelly wants to install some Peter Pan offices).
And as for the definition of “market rate”?
MassLive writes, “Market-rate rents will be $1,300 or $1,350 a month to $1,450 a month for a 1-bedroom and $1,400 to $1,470 a month for a 2-bedroom apartment.”
“These will be top-rate apartments,” Picknelly said. “These will be the nicest apartments in downtown Springfield.”
Additional changes may be a bit further off the horizon but they’re legitimate. State politicians continue to tinker with, and negotiate on, the voter-approved bill to legalize recreational marijuana.
The lion’s share of Massachusetts communities that have put a local moratorium (different than an all-out ban) on the sale of recreational pot are in Central and Eastern Massachusetts. Some Western Mass. towns have also gone the way of enacting moratoriums including Hadley, Hatfield, South Hadley, Holyoke, Springfield, and West Springfield.
If these communities opted to reverse their stances, they could join with the rest of Western Mass. to conceive a new industry statistically proven to be financially successful.
In Denver, CO where marijuana is recreationally legal, in 2015 “travelers who visited the state primarily for leisure purposes spent roughly $98 million at recreational marijuana stores… accounting for nearly 17% of overall adult-use cannabis sales in Colorado.”
If Holyoke mayor Alex Morse is reelected and gets his way, his post-industrial city has the potential to transform its lofty, vacant, riverfront warehouses into marijuana cultivation facilities and even possibly retail shops. Marijuana could help rehabilitate Holyoke and spur “canna-tourism” to a place frequently bypassed in the Pioneer Valley.
Holyoke is served locally by the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority but like the rest of Massachusetts, relies on Peter Pan for traveling latitudinally.
Further west, pushing the state boundary, are cultural institutions like Tanglewood, Mass MoCA, and Mount Greylock. Tanglewood, the summer retreat for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has reported an economic impact on Berkshire County as upwards of $100 million. Mass MoCA recently enjoyed a $60 million investment from the state for renovations and exhibitions that have been met with universal acclaim. Mount Greylock is the tallest mountain in the state; situated on the Appalachian Trail, Greylock is a place of pilgrimage for thru hikers, day visitors, and nature enthusiasts alike.
These three destinations, among others of a smaller size and scale, cannot anchor the revival of their own respective locales’ without additional resources and assistance.
A modern train station that can handle a sizable volume of visitors that a bus terminal logically cannot would be a launching point for westbound travelers looking to escape the trials of urban living in Eastern Massachusetts.
These places in the extreme western portion of Massachusetts have a consolation, though. In the compromise budget, from which a feasibility study of an east-west rail was prohibited, the Department of Transportation will convene a working group to “identify and evaluate the economic and cultural benefits and political, legal or logistical challenges to the Berkshire and western Massachusetts regions…of establishing direct seasonal weekend passenger rail service between the city of New York, New York and the city of Pittsfield between Memorial Day and Columbus Day weekends…”
This is certainly a reason for Western Mass. residents to be optimistic. Better access to and from New York could induce more travel to and from Western Mass. though if Northampton is any indicator, this could be one sided. According to National Association of Railroad Passengers statistics, “trips between Northampton and New York City generate more riders and revenue than any other trip along the line.”
That being said, it’s still puzzling that the state wouldn’t want to move forward with improved intrastate transportation access.
But if we follow the lead of the Roman orator Cicero and ask ourselves cui bono — to whose benefit — we’ll see that Peter Picknelly stands to be the biggest beneficiary; he’ll all but own regional transportation that’s expected to spike, he’ll profit handsomely from byproducts of the Springfield casino deal with MGM, and in doing so he’ll consolidate his influence with the Baker administration.
If both the Pittsfield rail and North Station-South Station rail get built, it’ll only perpetuate the socioeconomic disconnect between the two halves of the state.
Whether he’s your 2018 candidate for governor or not, Democratic candidate and former Newton mayor Setti Warren had this to say about about the eradication of the feasibility study:
By canceling the study of the East-West bullet train, Beacon Hill has decided that we’re not going to be a Commonwealth that connects the booming Boston area economy with important cities and towns in Western Massachusetts who have much to offer.
By taking back money that has already been allocated to the MBTA to use to plug last year’s budget gap, Beacon Hill has decided we’re going to be a Commonwealth that doesn’t acknowledge that our transportation system is inadequate and underfunded. And by replacing it with borrowed money and repaying current expenses with interest, Beacon Hill has decided to postpone paying the T’s bills.
By continuing the annual spectacle of using one-time fixes, fiscal sleights of hand and gimmicks to fix the budget, Beacon Hill has decided we are a Commonwealth that will not recognize the truth that state government needs new revenue. “If we don’t fix this broken budget process – if we don’t stand up and demand transparency and admit that we need new revenue – the toll on the Commonwealth will only get worse. The key question facing us is what kind of Commonwealth we want to be. This budget and the way it was developed and passed suggest the Commonwealth we are becoming needs to change.