Just over a year ago we interviewed Massachusetts Senator Eric Lesser about his efforts to bring frequent, fast passenger rail service from Boston to western Massachusetts. This week, we caught up with him again, talking about the COVID-19 pandemic and what it means for his constituents and our nation. We asked if the crisis has changed his position on passenger rail and connectivity, and about how Springfield and western Mass are perceived in the national press. Naturally, we wanted to know if he thinks we can build back better, and about the efforts underway in Washington DC to make passenger rail a part of economic recovery plans and a Green New Deal.
Train Time podcasts are available on or iTunes and Google Podcasts, and you can subscribe via RSS.
Train Time is hosted by Karen Christensen, founder of the Train Campaign and Chief Executive Officer of Berkshire Publishing Group and a writer specializing in sustainability and community with a focus on China. She was senior editor of the Encyclopedia of Community (SAGE), and is a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania Press and an associate in research at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University. She founded the Train Campaign in 2011 as a project of Barrington Institute, sister nonprofit to Berkshire Publishing Group.
This transcript includes timestamps, and has been lightly edited for easy reading.
Western Mass, rail, people, communities, crisis, state, green new deal, country, Boston, economic, investments, Springfield, working, western Massachusetts, Massachusetts
Karen Christensen, Eric Lesser
Karen Christensen 00:01
Senator Lesser. What a pleasure to talk to you again and thank you for taking time.
Eric Lesser 00:08
Well, thanks for having me, Karen. Good to be back. Yes, we recorded a podcast for the Train Campaign just over a year ago in July of 2019. It seems like forever, though, doesn’t it? So much has happened. Although, it depends, it feels it feels like a long time ago, for sure. But sometimes it feels like it was yesterday, I can go back and forth.
Eric Lesser 00:33
That’s so true.
Karen Christensen 00:36
You know, our focus, of course, is on trains, and transportation and Western Massachusetts, but I really would like to hear about what you’ve been doing the COVID-19 crisis, because it seems like all these things really do fit together. So give us a little rundown on what you’ve been up to please.
Eric Lesser 01:00
Yeah, well, well, so first, and I think it’s a truism at this point to say that our lives were completely different before March than they were after March of this year when COVID-19 struck. Really for me, there were a few things I was laser focused on from the beginning- first was getting our handle around the appropriate State response. And, you know, certainly, maybe, we don’t want to get into a bigger political discussion here. But the lack of coordinated Federal response really meant that the states were left to make the really urgent decisions at the start of this crisis. And as this crisis has continued, in terms of school openings and closures, working with the governor’s team, on the Department of Public Health guidelines, working on the essential business and non-essential business closures and opening protocols, we face a raft of severe economic consequences. Quickly. Around unemployment insurance, around health for needy families, around food pantries and food access. We face a crisis on our hospitals as elective procedures were canceled. Our hospitals and our health care systems were facing, you know, really, it is not an exaggeration to say the threat of economic and fiscal collapse when their revenues suddenly stopped. And of course, on top of all of this, we were facing an urgent health crisis and mounting cases every day. So really, in the early phases, it was working with various organs of State government, making sure that information is being provided to our communities. That was just clear; that was factual. And then it was really, you know, day to day emergencies that were coming up in our community food banks that needed more food, hospitals that needed financial help from the state, essential workers that needed PPE protection and needed our assurance and support. workplaces [where] we’re going to be safe coordinating and working with the National Guard to make sure that resources were mobilized at nursing home[s]. We had the horrific issues at the Soldiers Home. [We] have many constituents. Their families we were working with… navigating that so the early phase of the of the crisis was really about getting our handle around what was coming at us, making sure that we were being a resource to our community that are [at a] very urgent moment and then really doing our best to share and disseminate the fact-base[d] information people needed to know. And I can tell you, I care. I mean, we saw the feedback from that, you know, for example, track traffic to my Facebook page. My Facebook page went up by more than 100% and then at one point nearly 10x. Is it normal? It’s because people needed information. They needed information about Mass health coverage. They needed information about business, the essential and non-essential business closures. And I was committed in a moment like that- not to play politics with the information, to just share with people. The information that was being distributed by our state government, that’s what we did. As the virus numbers began to come under control, and as the spread began to slow down, we really had to begin to have these longer-term conversations about the structural issues in our society – in our communities – that coronavirus revealed. They really didn’t create them, they revealed them. And at the top of this are the issues you and I have talked about many times: income inequality, racial inequality, environmental degradation. That has meant that communities that I represent, for example, Springfield, have the highest asthma rates in the country. We know asthma is an underlying condition that exacerbates coronavirus. So these issues are built on top of each other and I’m committed. And I think a group of younger public servants, newer public servants that are coming through, or are committed to rebuild and better than where we were at before coronavirus. On the Senate floor, after comparing our economic rescue package, what we found from coronavirus, was that we actually had to have to crush two curves. When we started, we thought that our goal was to get the virus curve down. But what we’ve discovered is that we also need to fly in the second curve, which is a curve of skyrocketing economic and racial inequality in our in our system. In our state and certainly in western Massachusetts, just to bring it back. Yeah. To the topic here at hand, rail is one of the key solutions to those multi-layer intersectional crises that we face.
Karen Christensen 06:18
And tell us why you know, before the COVID-19, before the 10th or 12th 10th of March, there was so much going on. I was in Boston at the state house that day talking about rail revival. There was so much happening, a lot of contention, a lot of debate, but a lot of movement and interest. And then, there was the lockdown and people said, is rail going to matter? Are people going to travel at all anymore? How is this even part of the future? But in fact, there’s been a lot going on, hasn’t there? Can you explain why?
Just [so] you know, there is a school of thought, a group of skeptics. I point out that many of these people were skeptics of rail before coronavirus and are now using coronavirus to say the state can’t afford it, that the state has more urgent priorities, this isn’t the time to be talking about infrastructure, talking about rail. And I just want to respond to that right now, unequivocally. And say the moment has actually never been more urgent for these types of investments. And here’s why. We are facing, as you and I just talked about, a set of interrelated, simultaneous crises. We have a severe public health crisis. We are doing what we need to and we need to stay focused on doing what we need to do, to get that crisis under control. We need dramatically more testing in Western Mass. We need dramatically better investments in PPE. We are working, at the Mass Life Sciences Center, for example, on new therapeutics that effectively treat COVID-19. And then of course, we hope down the line, eventually we’re going to have a safe and broadly available vaccine. So fighting the virus is, of course, number one in the short term. We have multiple other issues and very severe issue that need to be dealt with the second crisis. The second curve that needs to be faced, is an economic crisis, the most severe economic and jobs crisis since the Great Depression. This rail project is a New Deal project. If you think about it, back in the 1930s, our country built 78,000 bridges at the height of the Great Depression. We built 800 airports back when air travel is just beginning. The height of the Great Depression most Americans had never even seen an airport, let alone been on an airplane when our country decided to build a hundred airports. The empire state building was built at the height of the Great Depression…. the Hoover Dam. And we look back on those investments as inevitable, but at the time, they were controversial. And they were presented as a way to put the country back to work and to solve the jobs crisis. Rail investments would put thousands of people to work immediately, building it. And we put 10s of thousands of people to work in the secondary effects once the rail is here, and we have all the development that comes with it.
The second crisis we face, that we’ve face in our country for a long time, has come back to the forefront. Of course after the murder of George Floyd and the issues coronavirus, has revealed, is we have a racial inequality crisis in our country. Springfield is a minority city with one of the largest Hispanic and African American populations in the northeast, outside of the big cities, of course, like Boston and New York, and it would be transformed by this. It would create thousands of new jobs and would create immense new opportunities for small business and economic growth in regions of the state and in communities of the state that have been left out of that growth. And then, you know, the other crisis that needs to be discussed is the climate crisis. And coronavirus, has again revealed this because again, you see the effect of dirty air, of asthma, of underlying conditions exacerbating the COVID-19 pandemic. And this project would be our green new deal for Massachusetts. This would be the single largest reduction in greenhouse gases in our Commonwealth issue. 40% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions come from Transportation, almost all from cars. This would take 10s of thousands of cars off the road. It would create 10s of thousands of good high paying jobs. And it would and it will, reduce air pollution and save our climate in the process. So when you look at the big challenges we face, whether it’s fighting racial inequality, fighting the scourge of income inequality, and especially the lack of economic growth industry map, taking on the climate crisis, this project is at the center of all of those. I think for those of us you meet, so many others who have been so passionate about this for so long. It’s really incumbent on all of us to make the case for why rail and in particular East West Rail connecting Pittsfield, Springfield and Boston is one of the key solutions to the really defining issues of our time.
Karen Christensen 12:01
Senator Lesser, can you, for those who listen to this podcast, and who don’t know our region – I mean, one of the wonderful things about doing a podcast is it does reach a larger audience and people far away who are interested in what we’re doing – can you tell people about what western Mass is like? What Springfield is like? Can you characterize it for those who are not familiar with it? We’ve got some press lately, haven’t we?
I appreciate that opportunity. Because, you know, I was frankly a little bit frustrated with some of the national coverage of, you know, recent news in western Mass, for a variety of reasons. I think principally, many national reporters who either don’t live here or haven’t otherwise created ties here or traveled here, really misunderstand what our region is like. You know, first off, I think that a lot of people assume, who don’t live in Massachusetts, that Massachusetts is Boston, right? We’ve all faced this, when you know, you meet someone from outside of the region, and they say, Oh, where are you from? And I say, you know, I say I’m from Massachusetts, and they just assume. Right. So, I think that there is a national perception that the whole state is Kendall Square; like the whole state is English. And of course, we know even in Boston, there’s immense diversity, and there are many communities in Boston that have been left out of that tech boom. But I think it’s safe to say that the general kind of national or even global perception of Massachusetts, for better or worse is that it’s a tech center, highly educated. You mentioned Harvard, you know, that’s what people tend to think of when they think of Massachusetts. And then I think, in western Mass, you know, sometimes there’s a sense that the sort of cultural institutions of the Berkshires or the academic centers of Amherst in Northhampton, are western Mass also. And I think what’s important for people to understand is, I actually think our region is a microcosm.
Take my State Senate district, for example. You know, I have about 170,000 people I represent in nine communities. My communities are incredibly diverse, really, in every way. Really a microcosm of the country. I have one of the largest Air Force Reserve faces. I also have multiple elite colleges. I have a tier one Medical Research Center and I have the headquarters of Smith and Wesson, I have some of the most rural community in the state, and I have some of the most densely populated urban and suburban communities, everything in between. I have some of the wealthiest communities in the state and I have some of the poorest. So really across the board, there needs to be, I think, an acknowledgment that western Mass is a much more diverse place really, in every sense, than I think a lot of people understand. One thing though, that unites all of those communities. I just pointed out that I represent rural urban suburban, you know, densely populated, wealthier or less wealthy, industrial, academic…. the region has not kept pace with the growth that we’ve seen in the metro Boston area, And many families, no matter where they may have started, don’t feel like your kids or grandkids are going to get the same offers that they did or that their parents did. And so a lot of families feel like they need to leave, and especially young people. And so smart policy can reverse that. And you know, just to connect it again back to the current crisis. If we do the investments that happen to create universal high speed internet, if we make the investments we need to make to get that East West and North South Rail done. If you combine that with the trend towards remote, walking, we could see immense opportunity for Western Mass because we are a place that can be a real center for this new era that we’re entering. So for example, someone in a lot of fields, the nine to five workday is really a thing of the past. People are working all the time. They’re working off hours. They’re working at home, [not] the conventional commute to work at 9am commute home at 5pm. Really something that’s changing. Somebody could live in Great Barrington, or live in Pittsfield, or live in Longmeadow and work, by June, you know, four days a week. Maybe one day a week goes into Boston, one day a week goes into New York or once a month or whatever, but as otherwise, working remotely, that is completely doable from Western Mass. And now all of a sudden, all of these opportunities that had once required leaving the community will allow people to stay in the community. So someone who’s graduating from UMass Amherst with an engineering degree, they can work for an engineering firm in Silicon Valley, you know, or a tech developer in Kendall Square, and they can stay in Amherst while they do it. And that is a huge change. And it’s something that we ignore at our own [peril?].
Karen Christensen 17:54
So we need connectivity. We need internet connectivity. And what do people say to you about rail and why trains will make their lives better?
Eric Lesser 18:22
Because of what it represents, for all the things that we’ve just discussed. And I think you’re right here and you really hit the nail on the head, it’s about connectivity. Western Mass is a great place to grow up. It’s where I grew up. It’s where I’m raising my daughters. We know it’s a great place. Those of us who live here know it’s really a best kept secret. And it’s a beautiful place. We have incredible cultural assets. We have really great talented people. But let’s be honest, our region has been left out of the economic boom that has happened all around us, and the results have really been devastating for our communities and our families. You know, taking up 50 years ago we were a manufacturing center and all of our different communities around western Mass that specialize in different things and Ludlow a town I represent, they made twine. And they made they made twine and textile and oil in the paper. You know, in Pittsfield, you had a General Electric. In Springfield, you had automobiles and automotive parts and aircraft engines, in Chicopee. You went around Western Mass and you saw paper mills, automotive company, manufacturing that employs thousands and thousands of people in each place, with good high paying, often movement, jobs. And we know what happened in the 1970s in the 1980s. In the 1990s. When I was growing up, those jobs left. They moved out, sold and moved overseas, they became automated. And while other parts of our state were able to backfill that change with new jobs in, in high tech in life sciences. We made some progress in those areas that we weren’t able to keep up. And the result has been really decades of an economy that has left too many people out, and people heard it. And the way to reverse that is to reconnect us to the world that is growing. And whether that’s, you know, whether that’s life sciences, whether that’s tech policy, whether that’s, you know, things like advanced manufacturing, where somebody without a college degree after a 10 week training program can make $90,000 in a year, in precision machine as well as a tool and die maker. But we can’t do those things if we don’t have the connectivity. And so the connectivity is across the board. It’s Rail. It’s high speed, internet. Um, it’s mindset. That’s a that’s a big part of it. So that’s what’s ahead.
Karen Christensen 21:07
I noticed that you tweeted this week about a conversation between Congressman Richard Neal and Senator Elizabeth Warren, about the East West Rail project. So what do we see ahead? What can we expect from Massachusetts and from our legislators in Washington in the months and years ahead?
Eric Lesser 21:30
Yeah, well, I’ll tell you, I’m on pins and needles. Because I do think we’re at a pivotal moment. In many respects, the stars are aligning for East West Rail. We’ve been working on this. Look, I campaigned on this as a 28 year old, in 2014. When I came home, I really to my home community after working for President Obama in Washington, after you’re attending schools in Boston. No, I came home and I saw what was happening. I felt it in my community where I had grown up and we made the case that we this is not an optional project, we need this project, there is no other choice, because the alternative is Western Mass continuing to fall further and further behind. So, you know, the governor vetoed the first try. We try it again. And then it got blocked in the legislature by some special interest, we overcame that. Finally, we went to the people and we organized the public. We did a tour, support for Rail, and the governor, you know, finally agreed and for the study in place. The study then got delayed and we had a global pandemic. That delayed it again, but we haven’t bled off and now we’re at a momentous time when a study will be released. And we have a Congressman Richard Neal, who is in an incredibly powerful position in Washington, who has also made rail a key part of his platform. We have two US senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, both publicly, multiple times at this point, now over many years committed to making East West Rail happen. And we will hopefully very soon have a President who himself you know, rode the Amtrak to get to and from Washington from Wilmington, Delaware for his whole career. So and, and again, most importantly, the homework will have been done on the State level because the study will be completed. So we are really at a key moment. So I’m hopeful if Joe Biden is elected, if we have and I expect we will have, a house majority in Congress. So Congressman Neal wants to remain chairman. We’ll have two advocates for Rail, Senator Warren and Senator Markey, both in great positions of influence. And on a national conversation, you know, if a green New Deal starts to become reality nationally, and I certainly hope it well, we need to also be clear, this is a green New Deal project. Because this is clean investments in clean infrastructure that are going to create good high paying jobs. At the same time, they reduce greenhouse gases and take cars off the road. So I’m very excited. I’m very energized by the prospect here. And I think we have no other choice. Because of the crisis, we face the economic and equality and environmental crisis that coronavirus has shown and exposed in great to great effect and impact. And so that’s the moment we’re in. And so for people who are listening, we really need everybody mobilized at this moment to try to bring it to the finish line.
Karen Christensen 25:08
Yes. And certainly you were there at the beginning and we’ll stay with it to the finish line. Eric, I know. Thank you so much for bringing us up to speed on where we stand now, at this important moment. And we’ll have to touch base again soon.
Thanks for having me, Karen. And I hope you and your family and everyone are doing well. And I just want to thank you. Because, you know, we really rely on you. We rely on you and, and all of our train advocates all over the country, really, who have been focused on this project. They’ve been our fuel.
Karen Christensen 26:00
I so agree with you that this is a model. It’s important for Massachusetts and Western Massachusetts but it’s also a model for the country. And we can do something here that really will show what’s possible in the future. You know, you’ve been leading the charge for so long. Thank you, do stay well, and get some downtime! Enjoy the weekend.