On this episode of Train Time we’re talking to Rep William (Smitty) Pignatelli about his advocacy for new connections for western Massachusetts. Host Karen Christensen explains, “I’m delighted to welcome my own representative, Smitty Pignatelli of Lenox, to Train Time. Rep Pignatelli has been a great advocate for regional equity, in transportation as well as in many other areas. He wants to see rural areas like ours get a fair shake. With all the recent news about the infrastructure bill, we have a lot to talk about, including West-East Rail.” As Rep Pignatelli wrote recently in the Berkshire Edge, “Infrastructure revitalization is critical for regional equity: The goal is not regional equality — it is regional equity, giving Western Mass residents the same diligent action on infrastructure that is the focus at the other end of the state.”
State Representative Wm. Smitty Pignatelli is a lifelong resident of Lenox, Massachusetts and a graduate of the Lenox Public Schools. Smitty, as he prefers to be called, was named after his father’s best friend, William Smith, who was killed during World War II. After graduating from Lenox Memorial High School in 1977, Smitty became a licensed Master Electrician and worked in his family’s electrical contracting business for twenty years. Smitty took over the full operation of the business at the time of his father’s retirement in 1991. Smitty left the family business to his brother Scott, in 1998, when he was offered a position as the Business Development Manager for Lee Bank. While at the bank, he attended Babson College School for Financial Studies, graduating in 2001. Longing to serve the people of his beloved Berkshire District, he decided to leave the bank to pursue his dream of public service and run for higher office. Smitty won the seat of State Representative for the 4th Berkshire District and is currently serving his eighth term in the House of Representatives.
Smitty was first elected to the Lenox Planning Board in 1987 and served on that board for five years. In 1992, he was elected to the Board of Selectmen, and was elected Chairman on four different occasions, serving until May of 2003. Smitty also served from 1995-1999 as a Berkshire County Commissioner including two years as Chairman of the board. With over 30 years of public service experience, Smitty has also been involved in many local associations. He is a member of the Berkshire County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, a past board member of the Berkshire County Arc, the Board of Directors of the Berkshire Visitors Bureau, the Berkshire County Red Cross and is a former President of the Lenox Historical Society.
Note: This transcript was created using AI and is imperfect. For purposes of quotation, please check the actual recording! It is time-stamped , which is useful as a guide to finding a point in the recording, but the time-stamps are not a perfect match to the podcast because we have added an introduction and done some editing.
Tue, 11/30 11:24AM • 21:30
Karen Christensen, Smitty Pignatelli
Smitty Pignatelli 01:50
Good morning. Pleasure to be here with you.
Karen Christensen 01:53
Terrific. Train Time, has, you know, ranged far and wide. But this feels really like bringing it back home talking about, you know, the part of Massachusetts that that you and I both know, and love. You for much longer because I think you were born here.
Smitty Pignatelli 02:11
Yep. Born and raised. My father was born and raised. So in fact, my grandfather immigrated from Italy, came to Ellis Island and got to the Berkshires by rail. So we’ve had a long history of 140 years in the Berkshires.
Karen Christensen 02:25
Wow. I didn’t realize it was that long. So that’s, that’s a perfect beginning for this because we are talking about, we are talking about bringing back connectivity to this region that we lost some years ago as many parts of the country and many places and other countries have lost. And obviously, there’s a lot going on now. Now you I would love to have you tell us how you assess its focus. You know, you know, I spent a lot of time working on the Berkshire line. But you know, there’s some stuff going on right now in terms of west east rail, as you’ve taught me to call it. Let’s talk about west east rail. When did when did you start thinking about this? I know you’ve been on a couple of committees, tell us that story and bring us up to date?
Smitty Pignatelli 03:24
Well, I have to give you all the credit seriously, I think you’ve been such a champion for rail in general, but in particular, the north south rail, from the Berkshires to Danbury to New York City. So I think that’s what really raised the awareness for a lot of us. And as you know, I’ve long said that we can legitimately look at North South unless we look at west east and I did coined the phrase west east, too much like the Mass Turnpike, which began in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts in the Berkshires and made it to Boston. My biggest fear is if we start things in Boston, it will never get to the Berkshires. So that west east conversation has to be legitimate, and we need to weigh the options. So I was appointed to the governor’s task force to look at transits throughout the Commonwealth. And the white paper just came out last week from MassDOT. And I’ve long envision an economic corridor from Albany, New York, Berkshire, Springfield, Worcester, Boston, west east west, would then turn into a very legitimate north south hub, from Pittsfield, much like Springfield has become a HUD hub. Much like Worcester has become a hub. I think there’s no reason why the Berkshires can’t be a hub for legitimate rail not only helping us environmentally, by getting cars off the road, but giving people that opportunity to live here and work there. That could go either way as well. Yeah, but like talking about a commuter rail more so than a passenger rail, I think is paramount for what I believe is a once in a century investment. A once in a multi generational opportunity to do this thing the right way. The Berkshires cannot be viewed as a backbencher.
Karen Christensen 05:20
Yeah. And I I’m really glad you brought up Albany because what you know, there, there’s always there always, always these issues of you know, the, the ridership. And the more you expand a network, and the more places you can get to buy on a rail system. The more you know, the more return there is on the money that’s invested in it. And we’re in a great position. We’re essentially equidistant from New York and Boston and then there’s Albany a state capital city of almost 100,000 People not far away either.
Smitty Pignatelli 05:43
Well, if you if you look at you know, our travel and tourism which you know, you know full well about as well. You’ve if you drew a three to four hour concentric circle around the Berkshires. I mean, there’s probably 45 million people that have the potential to come visit the Berkshires. So now we look at this COVID situation we’ve gone through for the last two years. Clearly people are here in the Berkshires. Clearly people are learning to work remotely in the Berkshires. We have our beautiful natural social distancing. We have all the amenities that I would say rival anywhere in the Commonwealth or New England. But what do we can do to keep them here? The ability to live here work there, I think is an opportunity that investments and rail and transportation are paramount. And that’s I say a kiss can’t say enough. If we’re going to do this, we have to do it right. Or we shouldn’t do it at all. And right now the proposal in my opinion is very flawed. It’s insufficient. And that economic opportunity for folks to live in the Berkshires and work in Albany or Western or Boston or vice versa. Think cannot be a missed opportunity going forward.
Karen Christensen 06:49
Yeah. Now, the proposal that came out from the Department of Transportation was to create a Western Massachusetts Intercity Rail Authority. That would be somehow separate from mass DoT But your concern? Is that, that it would focus that it would end up being to East Eastern mass centric. Is that is that is that your sole concern? I think, yeah. Other concerns as well?
Smitty Pignatelli 07:24
I have a lot of concerns. I don’t think we have time today. But I really believe that we’ve been talking for years about this east west west east economic divide between Western Mass and Eastern mass. This proposal, in my opinion, further compounds that discussion, to have a separate oversight agency or governmental agency that doesn’t have an identified funding stream, I think is short sighted going to be very problematic. As you know, one penny on the sales tax every person to buy something in the Berkshires right now, and pays a sales tax. One penny of that goes directly to the MBTA in Boston, that that amounts to 30 to $35 million annually going directly to the MBTA. Now I’ve been a state legislator for going on 20 years. I’m honest, I can honestly tell you, I’ve never once set foot on an MBTA bus, or a subway in the city of Boston, but yet I’m paying for it. Yes. So yes. And then a lot of the elected officials in Boston and people running for statewide office are saying fares at the MBTA should be free. Well, yeah, it’s free while we’re subsidizing it in Berkshire County in Western Massachusetts. That’s not fair. It’s free in Boston. But yet we struggle with the BR TA and button in the Berkshires for, you know, after our services, weekend services, trying to have schedules conducive to people’s work schedules. So if you worked at a local restaurant or even owned a restaurant, and you close up at 1011 o’clock at night, how do you get home? Just no public transit ability to do that? So well, we’re trying to find ways to enhance and expand services, folks in Boston are saying just give it to me free. But yet the Berkshires will keep paying for it. I don’t think that’s fair. Yeah.
Karen Christensen 09:14
Yeah. I mean, your talk, you bring up the issue of equity in many areas, not just in transportation. And this is certainly one where, where we do deserve a fair shake. And you’re concerned, I think, I think all of us this issue of fares is I find very interesting, because there’s been a lot of talk in Massachusetts about free fares. And I find myself wondering, if that’s really what concerns the public, it seems like to me what I hear about it, people want there to be transportation, they want it to be reliable. They want to have schedules that meet their needs. It’s not the fares so much that that that I’m hearing about?
Smitty Pignatelli 09:56
I think you’re absolutely right. I think when it comes to transit, we want reliability. We want affordability at the dozers, those are just two of the key components of this. Now for years, you know, we’ve been saying no turret no turnpike tolls on the Mass Turnpike. But yet, that’s a user road. If you don’t ever drive on the master plate, you don’t pay for it, you know, but when you do use it, and I would argue even winter, I’m looking out my window right now with a foot of snow on my front yard. I’m thinking that is one of the best roads in Massachusetts because it’s well maintained. Well, that cost money. So what is wrong with asking people who use the road to pay a little bit to do it. Now it’s got to be affordable, it’s got to be reliable. And I think some of the exorbitant fares of the MBTA, I think need to be reduced. But I’m not a big fan of making it free. If you use it, you shouldn’t be expected to pay for it. Someone’s got to pay for the bus. Someone’s got to pay for the bus driver. Someone’s got to pay for the ticket people. So I think there’s an obligation and I have no objections to paying something reasonable to use a public transit system. But it’s got to be affordable if I’m going to use it on a regular basis. And right now, I think this transit from you know, the Berkshires to Boston. It’s not reliable, and it’s not affordable to do it on a commuter basis. And I think we’ve been advocating, you know, under your leadership for a long time, a legitimate commuter rail. What they gave us in this report, in my opinion, is a passenger rail with no funding mechanism to do it. And I think we have a lot more work to do to make sure this was right.
Karen Christensen 11:37
Yes, and this and mass do t do T has specifically said that they would want Amtrak they would recommend that Amtrak operate east west rail service.
Smitty Pignatelli 11:50
Well, that’s what they’re saying now and I, in my personal opinion, I don’t think Amtrak is reliable, and I certainly not affordable. Now you and I, from the Berkshires can drive to, will say I hop on the Metro North make a round trip to New York City and what 50 $60? Yeah, you and I could drive to Hudson, New York right now, hop on the Amtrak from Hudson, New York, it’s a much prettier ride to New York City along the Hudson River for you know, 150 or $200. But if I have to do that on a regular commuter basis, that is cost prohibitive, and I think the history of Amtrak is not reliable, and it’s not affordable. You know, my legislative aide in Boston, she came home for the holidays, she took the Amtrak train from Boston, it took about four and a half hours cost her one way, I think $40. But yet, if you live in Boston, you could buy a monthly pass on the MBTA. For like, $90. In, in ride it. Yeah. 2025 times a day. Yeah. For the same $90. So it’s there’s a real economic divide. And I think we need to address that in order to make this proper investment. Yeah,
Karen Christensen 13:00
Amtrak has been long focused on in fact, was, in a sense set up to preserve the long distance that cross country routes and, and the regional kind of system that commuter or, you know, the remote worker, again, not sure if we’re gonna have to come up with a new name if it’s not daily commuting, but it’s regularly going into the city. Yeah. It is that is commuting. And, and that indeed, the price really makes a difference. It’s it and reliability is essential. I took Amtrak to Washington over Thanksgiving, actually. And it was a you know, it’s a nice way to get there. No question. But one of the things that always surprises me is how much people simply expect Amtrak trains to be late?
Smitty Pignatelli 13:56
Yeah, yeah, they’ve grown accustomed to it. Unfortunately,
Karen Christensen 13:59
they’ve grown accustomed to it. And that is not true in other countries and countries, you actually expect a train schedule to be something you can count on. It doesn’t always happen. But people get really mad. And hear it’s like, oh, well, it’s been a half an hour later. And everyone, we’ve just got to say, so we are, you know, we’re tolerating it. But that really does keep a lot of people from using trains.
Smitty Pignatelli 14:30
I think it does. And if you and I were going to Boston to go to a ballgame, you know, we would go down, we go down early anyways, and make sure if it’s a half hour late, we’re still an hour and a half early. But if you’re doing this for business on a regular basis, you know what, I can’t afford to be 45 minutes late to a meeting, you know, I think doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work. And that’s why it’s got to be reliable. They have to have tighter scheduling, and has got to be affordable. And even if you’re making that trip, one day a week, or maybe two days a week, maybe it’s not five days a week, it still has to be reliable and affordable. And right now it’s not and I just, I don’t have a good feeling in my stomach right now that Matthew T rail was truly committed to Berkshire County, as you remember, they talked about buses from the Berkshires to Springfield. I was labeled the bus killer, which you could just fine. But I I’m also predicting that you know, they’re gonna have great service from Worcester to Boston. Okay, service from Springfield to Worcester. And then you get on the MBTA and Worcester to get to Boston anyways. And we’re going to have poor to non existent from Springfield to the Berkshires, if we’re going to have a transit system for the entirety of the Commonwealth. We need to shake it up, we need to rethink things. And I went, I said on a call just before we get on with you, Karen, we need to break down the MBTA. It should no longer be called the metropolitan Boston Transit Authority. We should call it the mass transit authority or the Commonwealth Transit Authority. It is a Commonwealth authority for the entirety of the Commonwealth, not just one part for Boston, another part for the Berkshires and Western Mass. And another part of the Cape Cod, I think we have an opportunity to do this thing, right. I don’t know of any other state that has multiple transit authorities running the rail systems, much like they’re proposing for Massachusetts.
Karen Christensen 16:22
And I have seen I have heard people talk about the, the that the city systems, including New York should extend much farther. I mean, we think about going to Wassaic that’s the MTA in New York and that’s a that’s a route that’s almost Two hours. Last. Yeah. I mean, you’re excuse me, maybe clean that up for me? Yeah.
Smitty Pignatelli 16:45
You think about the MBTA. Currently, it now goes to Worcester. I mean, Worcester is the second largest city in the Commonwealth. So clearly, that’s not metropolitan Boston, it’s expanded that route, you can take an MBTA commuter rail to Providence, Rhode Island. So that interstate rail system is already existing in Massachusetts, let’s just expand the footprint of the MBTA. I think we should call it a different name. But have it come out to Springfield and Berkshire County. And then and then maybe if we are forced to do with an Amtrak from the Berkshires to Albany, that’s fine, too. But the heavy Commonwealth Transit Authority, I think is gotta be priority number one, to do this thing legitimately. And in for the next 100 years, we’re making a major investment that you and I hope we have a long time, we may not live long enough to see to what we’re envisioning right now. But for the next generations to come. I think people like you and I are going to be the ones who have laid the foundation for this. And we can’t wait five more years or 10 more years or 20 more years. It’s already 20 years too late. Let’s not wait any longer.
Karen Christensen 17:57
It is and we want a 21st century rail system. And that’s my concern often about the Amtrak mentality is that it just seems it seems you know, it began 50 years ago, it seems very 20th century. Well,
Smitty Pignatelli 18:13
we want a 21st century transit system. But we’re already at the end of 20, year 2021 22. You know, I’ve always said get moving, we got to get moving. I’ve always said the best time to plant a tree is 40 years ago, well, we better start planting the trees right now for a commuter rail system, throughout the Commonwealth and maybe multi states. And I think this would change the economy dramatically for the for Massachusetts, but especially Western Massachusetts, we’ve seen a loss of population, a loss of economic base, we have an opportunity to reboot this whole conversation and the live here work, their attitude could be from anywhere in Massachusetts very easily, reliably, and affordably. All boats will rise. And that’s why we’re called a Commonwealth. Let’s enhance that opportunity to be to do what we’re named after all boats will rise with one agenda.
Karen Christensen 19:08
The other thing I want to ask is to talk about the connection to New York, because as as we both know, a lot of people in the Berkshires are oriented toward New York, probably more than to Boston. I agree. And how do we how when you talk to people about it, how do you get across the idea that it’s not just it’s not just one line? Or the other? It’s about it’s about creating connections to both cities and the the kind of amplifying the value of each
Smitty Pignatelli 19:43
Yeah, I think, you know, folks in New York, I think, understand it better than Boston people, to be honest, the importance of rail because they depend on the rail to get everywhere in New York City. But I think people and I’ve learned during COVID. But I think if you look at the real estate market and the Berkshire turn COVID, we’ve seen a lot of folks from down east, looking at the Berkshires very differently. If we could give them that economic opportunity to live your work there. I think we could see a great influx of Eastern folks. But that concentric circle that I talked about earlier, and you were talking 40 45 million people, they were right in the middle of two state capitals. Think about exactly Albany, New York and Boston, the largest city in New England. We’re right in the middle of this, this was an opportunity for us all to really have a vision for the next 100 years, the next generation. And if we don’t do that, I think shame on all of us. It would help the environment by getting cars off the road. It would help other businesses look at the Berkshires very differently about coming here and can’t find an Uber or Lyft anywhere in the Berkshire County right now. But you could have those opportunities going forward. As long as we get people here, people are here. What are we going to do to keep them here
Karen Christensen 21:02
to keep them here and for young people especially I’m noticing young people with new young families. They love the idea of being in a place like this What a fabulous place to live, but they also want to pursue careers, and especially if they’re both working to give them the opportunity to live in a place where they can get to New York, or Boston, or to Albany.
Smitty Pignatelli 20:09
That’s exactly right. And we’re making some we’ve made some major investments in broadband. So people who are working from home, can access the outside world very quickly. It but then the next, the next major investment is transit. And I think this rail transit is real, is right on the heels of broadband is going to change the demographics of Western Massachusetts, especially the Berkshires. And that’s why I’m harping on we need to do it right. For the next 100 years. If not, we’re gonna be thinking back when you and I are old people sitting in our rocking chairs, saying, Boy, what a missed opportunity in 2021. And that’s what I don’t want to have any regrets going forward.
Karen Christensen 22:03
Well, thank you, Smitty, for your advocacy on this very, very important piece of, you know, making a prosperous future here. And across the state, this, this kind of transformation will benefit people everywhere in the Commonwealth.
Smitty Pignatelli 22:21
Well, thank you very much. And you’ve been you’ve been my mentor, and on this rail for a long time. We wouldn’t be where we are today without your doggedness, attitude on getting this thing going. And I really I can’t thank you enough for all that you’ve done. I enjoy working with you.
Me too. All right. Great. It’s lovely to talk to you.
Thank you. Happy holidays.
Note: This transcript was created using AI and is imperfect. For purposes of quotation, please check the actual recording! It is time-stamped , which is useful as a guide to finding a point in the recording, but please be aware that the time-stamps may not be a perfect match to the published podcast.