New federal study proposes overhaul of CT railroads — at a cost

An Amtrak Acela train bound for Washington, D.C.

Federal Railroad Administration

An Amtrak Acela train bound for Washington, D.C.

Washington – To tackle congestion in the Northeast Corridor, the Federal Railroad Administration has released an environmental study on ambitious proposals to overhaul Connecticut’s railroad system – possibly adding new routes, high-speed rails and a rail tunnel under Long Island Sound.

The study will help determine which of several options will lead to the Northeast Corridor of the future, or NEC FUTURE,  a multi-million-dollar federal effort to define and prioritize future investments in the rail system from Boston to Washington, D.C.

The FRA says the 457-mile NEC and its connecting rail corridors is the most heavily used rail network in the United States and among the busiest in the world, moving more than 750,000 passengers every day on 2,200 trains.

“By 2040, continued population and employment growth in the study area is expected to create increasing demand for travel options across the passenger transportation system—rail, air, auto, transit, and intercity bus. Yet the aging infrastructure and capacity limitations of the NEC already result in congestion and delays for daily commuters and for regional and interregional travelers,” the report said.

In its study, the FRA has come up with several alternatives to doing nothing and hoping the railroads keep their commitments to the existing lines.

The first alternative is the most modest, keeping most of the existing routes from Washington, D.C., to Boston, while adding a new line near New London, a new New London-Mystic station and other lines that would circle Baltimore and New York.

Alternative Two would be more ambitious, with the hope of making rail travel the dominant mode of transportation for intercity travelers and commuters in the Northeast. It would upgrade existing rail lines and provide additional tracks along much of the NEC “spine,” that is the Washington to Boston route.

This alternative also calls for a new line to be built from New Haven to Hartford through Meriden, and from Hartford to Providence, R.I., with a stop near the University of Connecticut in Storrs.

The most ambitious, and expensive, proposal is Alternative Three. It also calls for new lines to be built from New Haven to Hartford through Meriden and from Hartford to Providence. But it would add another rail route from New York to Boston through Danbury.

Alternative Three also includes another new option — from New York, through Long Island, to New Haven. This would require construction of a tunnel under Long Island Sound.

Alternative Three would also introduce high-speed trains, traveling at speeds of up to 220 miles per hour, to the Northeast Corridor.

A map of Alternative 3, which includes a tunnel under Long Island Sound to New Haven. Click image to enlarge.

Federal Railroad Administration

A map of Alternative 3, which includes a tunnel under Long Island Sound to New Haven. Click image to enlarge.

The environmental impact statement released by the Federal Railroad Administration this week is similar to an earlier plan released in 2013, with some changes made after considering public comments on that proposal. The proposals would take decades to complete and cost from $64 billion for Alternative One to $308 billion for Alternative Three.

Joseph McGee, vice president of the Business Council of Fairfield County, is concerned about how much of that cost Connecticut would have to pay, since much of the new construction would occur in the state.

“The problem is the Connecticut piece looks extremely expensive,” he said.

McGee also said the environmental impact statement left a lot of questions unanswered about how each plan would be implemented and the exact locations of the new routes.

“There are a lot of details that are just not there,” he said. “It’s really shocking.”

McGee said rail improvements are sorely needed, but said his “own view is the existing routes are what they are going to use.”

Amtrak and other railroads, however, support an aggressive overhaul of the rail system that includes new high-speed service.

The FRA report calls for a final plan to be determined at the end of the public comment period, Jan. 30, 2016.

“Future decisions by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the NEC states and Washington, D.C., and rail operators will shape the manner in which NEC FUTURE will be incrementally implemented over several decades,” the report said.

The FRA hopes to hold 11 field hearings along the Northeast Corridor to help collect public comment and answer questions about the plans. There will be two hearings in Connecticut, the first one at Gateway Community College in New Haven on Dec. 14 and the second at the Lyceum in Hartford on Jan. 13.

The environmental cost

The impact statement said upgrading the railroads would bring great benefits to the environment because of their ability to carry more passengers and reduce highway congestion and automobile pollutants in the region.

If nothing is done, the FRA estimated, there will be about 19 million one-way intercity trips and 420 million one-way regional trips in the Northeast corridor in the year 2040. That number increases with each alternative plan, reaching 39 million intercity and 545 million regional trips in the year 2040 if Alternative 3 is implemented.

But there are also environmental costs, the report says, especially to Connecticut.

Under all three alternatives, Connecticut and Maryland would lose the most land to the proposed rail projects. The alternatives would have a greater impact on water resources in Connecticut, especially those in New Haven, Middlesex and New London counties.

The environmental impact statement also listed New London, New Haven, and Fairfield Counties on a short-list of places most vulnerable to rail flooding because of climate change.

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