Massive rail plan leaves Connecticut hopeful but mystified

Nearly four years and $30 million after the Federal Railroad Administration began looking at how to reinvent the Northeast Corridor rail system, there is a proposal. In fact three of them in a nearly 1,000-page environmental impact statement.

NEC Future, as it is called, offers rail improvement choices that range from bare-bones fixes for noted choke points and other problems on the existing line to entire second lines that in Connecticut could re-route historic travel patterns.

It is also prompting a good deal of exasperation from officials, communities and all manner of interest groups in Connecticut, even though many have been begging for an improved rail system for years, if not decades.

“They spent $30 million on this report – it just doesn’t feel like a finished product,” said Joe McGee, vice president for public policy at the Business Council of Fairfield County, who, along with many others, was having difficulty assessing the options because of a lack of details. “It looks more like a response to be rejected than a real option.”

Attendance was light at a mid-December public hearing in New Haven on three rail proposals to upgrade the Northeast Corridor.

Jan Ellen Spiegel / CTMirro.org

Attendance was light at a mid-December public hearing in New Haven on three proposals to upgrade the Northeast Corridor rail system.

Compounding that core problem are several other issues. The report’s release just before Thanksgiving left about half the comment period, which ends Jan. 30, coinciding with the busy holiday season. Attendance was light at the first of two public information sessions in Connecticut, held 10 days before Christmas in New Haven. The other is January 13 in Hartford. None is scheduled for Fairfield County, where rail is currently most widely used.

Many otherwise interested parties – including leaders of some of the municipalities that would be most affected – were unaware the rail plan even existed. And there is the recognition – noted repeatedly in the document - that Connecticut would come in for many more impacts, including environmental ones, than any state in the 457-mile corridor from Washington, D.C., to Boston.

Those impacts could be so pronounced – taking tens of thousands of additional acres of undeveloped land, farmland and forest and affecting miles of water resources – that some are wondering whether much of the rail plan could do more harm to the environment than the good that would be achieved by getting cars off the road.

There are tradeoffs, said Rebecca Reyes-Alicea, who managed the NEC Future process. ”What we want the public and the stakeholders to understand is this is what it will take to see major improvements in service. Are we ready for it, or not ready for it? Are there intermediate steps we want to take?” she said. “At the end of all of this, it’s intended to define a vision. Do we want a big vision; do we want a small vision?”

But even James Redeker, Connecticut’s transportation commissioner and the chair of the Northeast Corridor Commission that oversaw development of the study, was not sure it provided those affected by it with enough to judge it.

The problem, he said, was the process. This environmental impact statement was not a traditional one that would have provided plans to solve specific problems along with all the relevant environmental, economic and other data, such as, in the case of rail, ridership information. Instead, NEC Future offered rail corridor options consisting of general locations, little detail about what it would take to put the rails there, no service development plan, and a broad price tag - but no funding strategy.

That's not enough for people to make even a conceptual choice, Redeker said, though that is what people are being asked to do.

“How are we supposed to make choices if we don’t know what service we’re going to get and if we don’t know yet if you’re going to turn to us to pay for that, and to what degree?” Redeker said. “I think this is going to be difficult for the public to provide meaningful input on.”

And that includes Redeker. He said he doesn’t yet know how he’ll respond. "If I can’t demonstrate to Connecticut folks that there’s a substantial and documentable and believable return on investment for transportation dollars, you might as well put them somewhere else,” he said.

The plan and the problems

There are three options beyond a no-build option that maintains a “state of good repair,” something even Redeker called a “non-starter.” All three keep and maintain the existing track, even if it’s no longer the primary route.

Option 1, with a capital cost of about $66 billion (none of the costs includes property acquisition), provides Connecticut with upgrades at chokepoints and adds a 50-mile line from Old Saybrook to Kenyon, R.I. The new line would bypass the existing shoreline route, much of which is in flood zones and salt marsh, making it susceptible to climate change and sea level rise.

Option 2, at $136 billion, does not include that bypass, but adds about 30 miles of track between Westport and New Rochelle. The biggest addition would be a route from New Haven to Hartford along the track being revitalized now. But then it continues east from Hartford through Storrs to Providence, merging into the line to Boston.

It would divert a large portion of regional and eventually high-speed rail away from the longstanding shoreline route.

Alternative three, costing as much as nearly $310 billion, contains the most massive changes in Connecticut. In addition to the Option 2 changes, it would add a tunnel under Long Island Sound between central Long Island and Connecticut, joining the New Haven line around Milford. It would add an inland route from New York City running through White Plains, Danbury and Waterbury to Hartford – much of it in tunnels.

From Hartford, in addition to the line to Providence, another would angle off to Worcester and then into Boston.

Even without the massive environmental impact from the rail right-of-way increase (more on that in a minute), the new lines are raising a list of concerns.

In Fairfield County, McGee’s list may be the longest, starting with a simmering tension over differences in philosophy. The NEC Future plan focuses on high-speed rail, finding straighter and flatter routes through Connecticut than the existing winding corridor that keeps train speeds low. That caters more to Amtrak long-distance service and not the eight regional carriers that use the corridor.

McGee and many others around the state are more focused on the commuters served by the regional carriers such as Metro-North. “Getting people to work is really the critical piece. That’s where the ridership is. That’s 125,000 people a day,” he said. “We’re talking workforce competitiveness, and that is tied to commuter rail.”

The Long Island Sound tunnel isn’t thrilling him either. “This is the center of the state’s economy,” he said of Fairfield County. “ And you’re now going to bypass it? We are very concerned that large chunks of Westchester, Fairfield and New Haven Counties would be eliminated from high-speed commuter rail under those two plans. Why would we do that?”

But what’s really stumping him is the New Rochelle to Westport line and its designation as “aerial.” With no real details in the report, which he called “opaque,” he sent a letter to the FRA with questions to help him make an assessment.

He received a one-paragraph form-response:

“Thank you for your comment. Please note that comments received on the Tier 1 Draft EIS during the formal public comment period will be addressed in the Tier 1 Final EIS, anticipated to be released in late 2016. We appreciate your interest in NEC FUTURE.”

“They owe us more information,” he said. “How can you make a choice if you don’t know where the thing is even located?”

At the Capitol Region Council of Governments, Executive Director Lyle Wray was already bristling that his previously stated concerns about the Danbury to Providence link were ignored in the report. He worries that the focus on high-speed rail will effectively de-rail the Northern New England Intercity Rail Initiative – a regional rail plan to reconnect the 1.7 million people in the Hartford-Springfield, Mass., region to the 5 million in metro Boston.

That plan would re-establish a commuter-rail connection from Springfield to Boston along its former route through western Massachusetts.

“When you say ‘let’s just build something from Danbury to Providence’ – never mind how much it costs and how many eminent domain cases you’re going to have to win. It’s unconstrained by funding limits, constructability, environmental and community impacts. Well good luck on that,” he said.

Mayor Mark Boughton of Danbury, who like many others was largely unaware the rail report even existed, called the tunnel-heavy plan for a Danbury-to-Hartford line “absurd.”

“A monorail system on the median of 84 where we already own most of the property makes a lot more sense and would certainly be more cost effective and might actually get built in all of our lifetimes,” he said.

He’d like the Metro North line from Danbury to Norwalk electrified for the many people who use it to commute. “And having a non-stop direct line into Grand Central would be one of the biggest economic development initiatives we can do around here,” he said. Option 3 includes that route.

Sam Gold, executive director of the Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Governments, RiverCOG, said the problem with the plan is that his region, Middlesex County, was not included among areas that would feel impacts – even though there could be a new rail bridge over the Connecticut River.

“If that’s what’s needed in the future to keep the Northeast corridor running, so be it,” he said. “But they need to be careful to make sure they do as much as possible to minimize or mitigate any impact.”

Paige Bronk, Groton’s manager of economic and community development, was among the few who were not complaining. He said there was enough in the report to help him assess the alternatives and was leaning toward the first one.

“It’s a little bit easier for us,” he conceded. “We know we support the rail line; we know we don’t want to lose our volume, and if anything we want to increase our ridership. We probably have a simpler analysis than maybe some other communities.”

Environmental tradeoffs

The analysis for the environmental community is turning out to be anything but simple.

Long before climate change became the core concern, environmentalists in Connecticut were advocating for better rail as a way to lower air pollution from cars. But after being alerted to the existence of the NEC Future report, most were dismayed at the extent of the environmental impact, especially from Option 3.

Roger Reynolds of Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound called the Long Island Sound tunnel a “non-starter.”

“From an environmental perspective, and maybe from other perspectives, it’s just a manifestly bad idea,” he said. “We’re paying a remarkable cost to do remarkable damage to our resources – particularly the Long Island Sound.”

He favored working with the corridor we already have, though he called the Old Saybrook to Rhode Island bypass an excellent idea. “I think you have to think hard and long about whether you want to do a brand-new train route when an existing train route could do much of what you want,” he said.

The numbers that reflect the environmental impacts are staggering. The current corridor in Connecticut encompasses more than 24,000 acres of developed and 10,000 acres of undeveloped land. That would increase to more than 42,000 acres of developed and nearly 31,000 acres of undeveloped land in Option 3.

The prime agricultural land impact would more than triple to 3,100 acres and the prime timberland impact would nearly quadruple to more than 21,000 acres. Parkland and wild and scenic river impacts would more than triple to 2,600 acres.

Fred Reise, a senior environmental analyst with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection who is reviewing the rail plan, said with that much new rail corridor, the environmental effect was not surprising,

“You’re impacting either wetland, farm land, forest land, parkland, historic locations,” he said. “There’s not really a way to sneak things through and have it go through nothing but, say, gravel pit.”

DEEP will be submitting comments as well as guidance on policy, locations that could be problematic, and permitting. “If an answer was going to be ‘hell will freeze over before you’d get a permit to do this from us,’ we’ll try to let them know that up front,” Reise said.

But environmental advocates also pointed out that considering just the corridor would be deceptive. Cutting through a forest, for instance, could result in what’s known as fragmentation. That could mean losing more trees and ecosystems than just those where the track is laid.

Kip Kolesinskas, a consulting conservation scientist to Working Lands Alliance in Connecticut, and WLA project director Lisa Bassani both worried about farmland loss in Tolland and Windham counties in particular.

“If it’s bisecting an agricultural community, that is three or four farms that are really important to that particular area, and there‘s not a feasible alternative, then that gets pretty tough,” Kolesinskas said.

They also worried that a rail buildout without accompanying community development plans could result in housing sprawl and the need for even more roads just to drive to a train station.

“Overall the spirit of this is wanting to increase investment in alternative transportation options. I think most people would agree that’s a good,” Bassani said. “Really the devil’s in the details of the mapping. What are you doing to distinct farm entities, distinct farm businesses?”

Patrick Comins, director of bird conservation at Audubon Connecticut, seconded the devil-in-the-details concern, but after pouring over maps of general route configurations, particularly the Danbury to Rhode Island corridor, he was chagrined to learn it ran right through his organization’s Bent of the River Center in Southbury as well at the Connecticut Audubon Society’s Bafflin Sanctuary near Pomfret.

He noted what happened when I-95 bisected the Society’s Birdcraft Sanctuary in Fairfield years ago. “About only half of the property is remaining,” he said.

His litany of areas that seem to be in the path of proposed rail lines was long: Paugussett State Forest, Lake Lillinonah, two drinking water reservoirs near Trap Rock Ridge and Ragged Mountain.

“A path through Natchaug State Forest is concerning because that’s got habitat for Cerulean warbler, which is a globally vulnerable species,” Comins said. “It goes through Nathan Hale State Forest. It goes through Mansfield Hollow. It goes through some pretty significant wetlands. There would be a huge inland wetland impact.

“It’s a difficult conundrum. This is a massive undertaking, and we definitely appreciate a reduction in carbon emissions by promoting mass transit, something we need to do.”

But like others, he needs more detail, and that’s giving rise to some sentiment that the whole process should slow down.

”My gut instinct is that more time would be helpful,” said DOT Commissioner Redeker. But he said some of the motivation for the current compressed timetable is to get things approved before the end of the Obama administration.

“Would I like to see more of Connecticut rail-accessible and have different services and see improvements in it? Absolutely,” Redeker said. “As to whether the cost and impacts are worth those outcomes, we don’t know that yet. That’s the problem.”

Comments

comments