Diehl Discusses Rail, Homelessness And Affordable Housing, And State Aid

Government and Politics

August 21, 2022

Diehl Discusses Rail, Homelessness And Affordable Housing, And State Aid

ATHOL — Former state Representative and current Republican gubernatorial candidate Geoff Diehl says current problems at the MBTA shouldn’t deter the extension of rail service to Athol and beyond.

In a recent interview with the Athol Daily News, Diehl said, “Despite the fact that the MBTA right now has its major issues with deferred maintenance, I think the state is able to walk and chew gum at the same time. I think we can work on trying to update what (Boston) has going on, as well as look at a way to expand our rail services and more affordable commuting and less congestion. And I think east-west rail is part of that solution. I think South Coast rail — extending that further along the South Coast — is another way.

“I think what those projects do is help unlock parts of our state where we can allow people to start looking at — perhaps they’re working in Boston but they can actually work remotely now — they can actually start to, with expanded rail further west, think about commuting from a slightly longer distance away, from communities that are looking to bring in more residents and the revenue that comes with that. Rail is certainly an important part of unlocking the overall network of our state.”

Diehl added that expanded rail service would help reduce congestion on Route 2 and the Mass Pike.

“Rail, if it’s done correctly, can be a long-term solution to helping ease housing congestion in the eastern part of Massachusetts, and also spur some growth and economic vitality in other parts of the state,” he said.

Beyond expanded rail service, however, Diehl continued, “I think what we have to do in this state is commit to other infrastructure improvements. By that I mean telecommunications and broadband infrastructure, because if you want to start to having people and companies moving into other parts of the state — like central and western Massachusetts — you’ve got to also make sure those core services that businesses expect are secured as well. I think we have to look at both transportation and telecommunication infrastructure as going hand-in-hand.”

The Republican candidate also said local transit authorities will need more state support moving forward.

“The RTAs (regional transit authorities) are going to be a vital part of continuing to allow affordable housing because people may or may not be able to afford cars, especially with the cost of fuel right now. The state has to fill the gap with regional transportation networks that allow people to get from one place to another.”

Asked about addressing the twin problems of homelessness and affordable housing, Diehl said, “There’s mental health components to homelessness and, for me, one of the things I think the state needs to focus on is getting mental health services available. Right now, opioid addiction, mental health, homelessness — they all kind of intertwine to an extent. What we’ve seen is a centralized effort to provide either mental health services or addiction services, but they’re centralized in larger cities.

“I’d like to see a push of mental health services and addiction services back into the suburban and rural areas. Quite honestly, those towns and areas, they need to own some of the mental health services as well; there can’t be a ‘not in my backyard’ attitude because people need to be close to their families during recovery time, and potentially being able to go back to their former employers.”

Athol Building Inspector and Zoning Agent Bob Legare recently estimated that as many as a third of the homeless in the Athol area are working homeless — that is, employed but unable to find affordable housing. Asked what the state could do to assist with the expansion of affordable housing, Diehl responded, “One of the things I support is the state using its money for brownfields reclamation; in certain regions of the state there are areas designated as brownfields. What I’d like to see is the state come in and reclaim that land in the brownfield areas and then trying to turn those areas that were not usable into affordable housing areas; those areas that cities and towns maybe just can’t develop right now. Try to get the state to unlock properties that could be cited for future housing development.

“Whether it’s a tax exemption or it’s more funding back to the city or town in either local aid or unrestricted funds, that would be something I think would make a lot of sense,” he explained. “The other thing, I know our Chapter 90 reimbursement for road construction tends to be based on population density, not necessarily on miles of road, so central and western Massachusetts get less Chapter 90 funds because of a more sparse population over a geographic area. I’d like to re-work that so that it’s really more about the miles than the density.

Diehl is facing off against businessman Chris Doughty, to whom the Athol Daily News also spoke recently, in the Sept. 6 Republican primary.

Arrangements are being made to speak with Democratic gubernatorial candidate state Attorney General Maura Healey in the near future. Although the name of state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz will appear on the Sept. 6 primary ballot, she has withdrawn from the race, leaving Healey unopposed for her party’s nomination.