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Gas Company Explores Right-of-Way in Valley; PVTA Plans Expansion of Bus Routes; Cathedral High Community Sighs With Relief; “Backbone” Network Complete; Broadband to Come

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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Gas Company Explores Right-of-Way in Valley

I don’t want any part of it. I never would give up our land for it.” That’s the way Laura Chapdelaine of Montague feels about the pipeline Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. wants to run through a part of Franklin County.

Tennessee Gas, a subsidiary of Kinder Morgan—self-described as the largest transporter and storer of natural gas in the U.S.—intends to run a gas pipeline from Wright, N.Y., west of Albany, 179 miles through Western Massachusetts and eastward to the Portland Natural Gas Transmission System facilities at Dracut, near Boston. According to a company memo, the line will likely tap into the Marcellus shale formation in Pennsylvania and the Utica shale formation in New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio in order to distribute more gas in New England and Atlantic Canada. Gas is extracted from those shales by fracking.

The company has begun approaching landowners in Berkshire and Franklin counties about surveying possible rights-of-way through their properties. Maps shown the landowners indicate that the pipeline would enter Franklin County in or near Ashfield, cross the Deerfield and Connecticut Rivers, the latter at a point not far from the East Deerfield railyards, and run eastward out of the county at or near Orange. Kindermorgan spokesman Richard Wheatley told the Advocate the company is working its way westward from the Boston area to determine what easements are necessary for a possible route for the pipeline.

Landowners in several towns, including Ashfield, Cummington, Shelburne and Montague, have received calls from the company. Some residents are unwilling to give the company access to their land; a sign of the opposition is the formation of nofrackedgasinmass.org, a group with a website that tracks developments in every town that are related to the pipeline. Others are simply eager for information, because so far the company has contacted town governments to say its representatives planned to speak to property owners, but offered few details about the project, which it calls the Northeast Expansion Project.

Chapdelaine, who together with her husband has refused the company access to their land, told the Advocate that she grew up with water shortages and strongly opposes fracking for natural gas. Fracking uses large amounts of water to inject layers of shale in order to extract the gas, and, according to opponents, pollutes water supplies and air.

No fracking is being done in Massachusetts, which has regulations aimed at preventing well injection activities that might pollute groundwater. State geologists have said that it is not likely that the Hartford shale basin, which runs north and south through the Connecticut River valley, would yield enough gas to make exploration here worthwhile. But Chapdelaine and other opponents of fracking say they plan to resist enlarging the market for gas produced by fracking, and the delivery through Massachusetts of fracked gas.•

 

PVTA Plans Expansion of Bus Routes

We’re willing to rethink the service from Holyoke to UMass,” Pioneer Valley Transit Authority administrator Mary MacInnes told the Advocate last August, discussing the beneficial effects of a $4 million increase in the allocation for the PVTA in this year’s state transportation budget. The PVTA received the money because state law now allocates money for regional transportation authorities in a way that’s based on ridership. (The PVTA logs about 11 million rides a year, more than three times as many as those logged by the next-largest regional transportation authority in the state.) MacInnes added that other new services might be added for PVTA passengers if generous state transportation budgets continued.

That discussion with MacInnes came just a week after the Advocate had published a guest column outlining the problems of traveling by public transit between the Valley’s northern and southern tiers (“A Valley Divided by Public Transportation,” July 31, 2013.)”

MacInnes recently announced proposed new routes, including one that should be of major benefit to those traveling between the Upper Valley and Holyoke: a new express bus that would run every two hours, seven days a week, from Haigis Mall at UMass to the Holyoke Transportation Center at 206 Maple Street, about two blocks from Holyoke City Hall. In addition, there are plans to expand existing service between Northampton and Holyoke Community College.

Other routes that will go into service when the colleges are not in session will provide welcome service to non-students. One such route under consideration for Amherst would operate every hour between Haigis Mall, North Pleasant Street and Atkins Farms down Rte. 116 in South Amherst. In Northampton, buses will make more local stops, including stops at the Survival Center and the YMCA. The bus from Northampton to Williamsburg will run every hour, rather than every two hours, through the middle of the day.

The PVTA will hold hearings around the Valley this month and next to take public comment about the proposed new routings. Its board is expected to vote on them in June, and some new routes may begin to be active in September. For more information, check the PVTA’s website, www.pvta.com.• —SK

 

Cathedral High Community Sighs With Relief

Springfield City Councilor Tim Rooke graduated from Cathedral High School, as did his brother and his three sisters. His son graduated from Cathedral in 2011. His daughter is now a junior there.

So Rooke was among the large group of people who’d been waiting anxiously for Cathedral’s fate to be resolved. On June 1, 2011, Cathedral and its neighbor, St. Michael’s middle school (along with many other buildings in Springfield), were badly damaged when a tornado hit the city. By fall, the schools had found temporary homes, with Cathedral in rented space in Wilbraham.

But as the months went by and repair work did not begin at the school’s campus on Surrey Road in Springfield’s East Forest Park neighborhood, Cathedral families and alumni became increasingly worried. Would the school ever return to Springfield? Was Cathedral—which has seen its enrollment steadily decline over the years—in danger of closing for good?

Last week, those fears were put to rest, when the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield announced that the school will, indeed, be rebuilt on Surrey Road. The news came after the diocese reached an agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which will contribute about $29 million to the work. That money, coupled with an insurance settlement, will allow the project to move forward.

When will that movement begin? Mark Dupont, the diocese’s spokesman, told the Advocate that it’s “far too soon to even estimate the start of construction.”

“Unfortunately, part of the FEMA policy did not allow us to begin demolition prior to an agreement, so we were limited in our actions,” Dupont said. “Some analysis has been undertaken and tentative plans drawn up to begin asbestos abatement and removal as soon as possible. There are federal guidelines we will have to follow which add to the timeline, but we hope to begin a staged demolition within months. During this time architects and educators will start the design phase to replace not just Cathedral [High School] but also to address the facilities lost that were part of St. Michael’s Academy middle and preschools.”

To understand the significance of last week’s news, it’s important to understand the role Cathedral has long played in Springfield. Generations of city leaders in business and politics went to Cathedral, sent their children there, or both. City Council President Mike Fenton is an alumnus, as are a number of his Council colleagues and a long list of former councilors and School Committee members. Former Mass. Attorney General Tom Reilly is a Cathedral alumnus. So is U.S. Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont, and Derek Kellogg, coach of the UMass men’s basketball team. Mayor Domenic Sarno went to a public high school—Springfield’s High School of Commerce—but he’s now a Cathedral parent. U.S. Rep. Richie Neal taught at the school.

Over the years, families have sent their kids to Cathedral for a good education based in Catholic values. It’s also served as an alternative for Springfield families who want to avoid the city’s public schools, which have been plagued by poverty, high dropout rates and low test scores. In a city that’s seen considerable middle-class flight, Cathedral has helped stave off at least some of that exodus. As Fenton recently told the Advocate, having Cathedral in the city—along with other private, charter and magnet schools—gives families the kinds of educational options that are crucial for keeping a strong middle class in Springfield.

“It has a lot to do with tradition, and traditions are hard to break,” said Rooke, who sat on a committee of parents and alumni that pressed the diocese to rebuild Cathedral in Springfield. “The fact that my kids were able to go to the same high school I went to and get the same education, the same values, the same religious education, I think that is critical.”

Which is not to say that there isn’t still work to be done, Rooke continued. Uncertainty over Cathedral’s future has hurt enrollment, he said: “Now that they have been made whole by the insurance company and FEMA, the next logical step, as far as I would be concerned, would be redefining the goals of Cathedral.” That should include, he said, focusing on academic excellence (an effort bolstered by another recent announcement, that Cathedral has been accepted into the rigorous International Baccalaureate program) and reducing tuition, which runs $9,310 this school year.

To that end, the diocese recently kicked off a $10 million fundraising campaign to boost its endowment and offset tuition costs. Bishop Timothy McDonnell wanted that fundraising effort to be underway before deciding on Cathedral’s future, Dupont said, and the response so far has “ provided [McDonnell] additional confidence that this drive could succeed.” Last month, Michele D’Amour, a Cathedral alumna, and her husband, Big Y CEO Donald D’Amour, donated $500,000 to the fund and pledged an additional $1 million challenge gift.

Still, Dupont added at the press conference announcing the federal settlement, both McDonnell and Neal, who worked to secure the FEMA money, “made a point of stating that the future of Cathedral did not lie solely with new brinks and mortar, but, more importantly, students. So the eventual future success of this school rests with its alumni and supporting community.”

Rooke, for one, believes that effort can only be helped by last week’s news: “With those five words spoken”—Cathedral will rebuild in Springfield—“I don’t think they’ll have any trouble raising money,” he said.•

 

Tales of the Housing Crisis

Joshua W. moved to Springfield five years ago and has been homeless the entire time. “I have mental health issues, so this makes finding shelter harder,” he says.

Jackie L. has been living in an abandoned house in the city for several years. “It was safe for a while but is now riddled with violations,” she says.

Emelia M. is a recent Hampshire College alumna who struggles to balance the rent on her Northampton apartment and her monthly student loan payments. “Rents in college towns are hiked up; they are priced to fit current college students who may or may not be able to afford such rents based on loans taken out from banks to assist them in attending college,” she says. And she’s not the only young person facing that problem:“ I am not representative of this population; I am lucky to have a job that pays the rent, I have a family that can support me when I’m a little short one month, and I have my white and class privilege that allows me to navigate social systems and institutions that are otherwise closed to others. But despite all of this, my housing is still not truly affordable!”

Joshua, Jackie and Emelia shared their experiences on the Can’t Wait List, a new national “story bank” that collects the first-hand accounts of people struggling to find or keep a roof over their heads due to high housing costs, foreclosure, eviction, unemployment, underemployment—or some combination of those factors.

The Can’t Wait List is part of a national campaign called Homes for All. Its mission is to persuade local, state and federal governments to invest more in affordable housing, said Malcolm Chu, an organizer with the anti-foreclosure group Springfield No One Leaves/Nadie Se Mude, which helped launch the Homes for All campaign.

The story bank, Chu said, “is a way to bring together folks from around the spectrum who have a shared interest and a shared need for a new government commitment to affordable housing.” While SNOL’s membership is made up largely of tenants and homeowners displaced by the foreclosure crisis, the Homes for All project addresses a wider array of barriers to finding safe, affordable housing. In Springfield, for instance, rents have gone up 13 percent since 2008, Chu said, citing figures from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. And families can spend years on wait lists for subsidized housing.

“The housing crisis is still very much alive, especially in working communities and communities of color,” Chu said. “This is about putting the word out.”

The story bank will also serve as a valuable organizing tool, “engaging people in movement building and collective action,” he said.

Locally, SNOL kicked off the Can’t Wait List campaign last week with a rally in Springfield. The group will continue to collect stories throughout the spring, canvassing at housing court, town hall meetings and other events and working with organizations focused on related issues, such as campaigns to raise the minimum wage and groups that work with people in shelters.

Ultimately, Homes for All hopes to collect at least 1,200 stories from around the country. Then the group will bring those stories to policy makers, along with a core demand: to force Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae to finance an affordable housing trust fund established by the federal government in 2008. While that legislation called on the two government-run mortgage finance firms to put money into the fund, Ed DeMarco, then-head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, froze payments after the agency received a public bailout. President Obama and Senate Democrats have called on DeMarco’s successor, Melvin Watt, to reinstate the payments, noting that the agency is now profitable. Obama’s fiscal 2015 budget calls for the agency to put $1 billion into the fund.

“We’re seeing this as a start to a long-term vision of rebuilding the commitment to housing in our country,” Chu said of the Can’t Wait List campaign. “Government needs to play an active role in guaranteeing housing as a right to all residents.”• —MT

“Backbone” Network Complete; Broadband to Come

The Massachusetts Broadband Institute has completed and tested a 1,200 mile-long network of fiber-optic cables, which will bring high-speed Internet access to 1,200 facilities in more than 120 communities in central and Western Massachusetts.

The fiber-optic backbone will, according to the MBI, allow local schools to take greater advantage of the Internet in their curriculums, give libraries the ability to better serve the digital needs of their constituencies, improve the communicative capacity of fire and police departments, and “[provide] a platform that can lower the barriers for businesses, institutions, and neighborhoods seeking high-speed Internet access.”

The MBI—created by the Broadband Act, which was signed into law by Governor Deval Patrick in August, 2008—was allotted $45.4 million for this project by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) Broadband Technology Opportunities Program. Forty million in state money also went into the project. ?The completion of the network is a milestone because until now, rural towns in Western Mass. have been caught in a patchwork of partial service—one area, for example, might have cable television but no Internet, another neither—that made it difficult for many residents even to shop or file income tax forms online, much less start businesses that require high-speed Internet service. The goal of creating the so-called “backbone” network was to institute so-called “middle-mile” infrastructure in order to create an incentive for companies to move in and give rural towns what’s called “last-mile” service, the service that reaches into homes and businesses.

The state is jubilant about completion of the network, but the fact remains that many people in the Hilltowns and elsewhere still need the “last-mile” service in order to be connected. Aaron Goldman of the Springfield Institute helped organize planning committees for years to assist small towns in their quest to get broadband, and he is concerned that for many homes in unserved communities, broadband is still nowhere in sight. “It’s not clear at all that providing more robust middle-mile infrastructure is going to make last-mile infrastructure more likely,” he cautioned.

“Absolutely, it is not the final step by any means,” said Rep. Steve Kulik of Worthington, who has worked for years to help underserved communities get broadband. “But it is a critical component of a completed network, which will be what actually connects the network into people’s homes and businesses, as well as the schools, hospitals and libraries, and other institutions like that—town halls. So this is a very important part of the infrastructure, but by no means the end of the project.”

The MBI network has accomplished one important thing already: it provided the base on which the town of Leverett (population 2,000) built a plan to construct a fiber network of its own in order to give its residents high-speed Internet access. People in Leverett voted to build the network on the model of a municipal light company, and to pay for it by instituting a small tax increase. The town is currently in the process of interviewing potential providers for the service, which will give residents a more up-to-date choice than satellite and dialup connections if they choose to subscribe.•

 

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