Washington – There is split opinion in Connecticut on ambitious proposals to overhaul rail service in the Northeast Corridor, with some preferring to put resources into a coastal route to Boston and others backing an inland route that runs through Hartford with a new stop near Storrs.
Differences over the Federal Railroad Administration’s proposals have divided coastal towns like New Haven and Old Lyme, and pit environmental groups against Amtrak and others who want high speed rail service between Connecticut cities, Boston and New York.
Meanwhile, Gov. Dannel Malloy said he wants the Federal Railroad Administration to fix and modernize the existing Northeast Corridor before spending billions of dollars on expansion plans that would introduce high-speed rail into the region.
“Connecticut does not endorse any particular Action Alternative at this time,” Malloy wrote FRA Administrator Sarah Feingberg.
Instead, the governor said Connecticut “strongly recommends” the FRA move on the “No Action Alternative,” a proposal that would limit the federal government to working on existing lines, at a cost of $20 billion, and “addressing connections to Bradley International Airport.”
“Only after this is completed should major new capacity be evaluated,” Malloy wrote.
But the FRA plans to select one of three alternatives proposed for its NEC (Northeast Corridor) Future Plan this fall.
While Malloy does not want to pick a favorite, many of his constituents have.
More than 1,850 of the 3,200 public comments on the NEC Future plan collected came from Connecticut – about 1,000 just from residents of Old Lyme. The comments, submitted from Nov. 13, 2015 through Feb. 16 of this year, were obtained by the Connecticut Mirror through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Amtrak supports the most ambitious plan, one that would establish new lines from New Haven to Hartford and from Hartford to Providence and add a new rail route from New York to Boston through Danbury. But most who weighed in on the proposals preferred other plans.
The Amtrak-backed proposal, called “Alternative 3,” also includes another option – from New York, through Long Island, to New Haven. This would require the construction of a tunnel under the Long Island Sound.
At a cost of about $300 billion, Alternative 3 would be the only one that would establish high speed rail with trains traveling at 220 miles an hour and faster.
While there was support for high speed rail in Connecticut, most coastal towns said they preferred Alternative 1, the most modest, even if it provided only higher speed trains that could not reach 220 miles an hour.
Alternative 1 would keep 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 1 calls for straightening out the two existing lines near Old Lyme and adding two more.
FRA spokesman Matthew Lerner said restricting use to the existing “curvy” and “double tracked” rail that runs through Old Lyme would prevent running faster trains along the coastline.
The original plan was to build an aerial viaduct — a long, bridge like structure — in Old Lyme to speed up the trains. But after an outcry from Old Lyme citizens who said that plan would ruin the city’s historic downtown, the FRA is considering running the trains under the town.
“A tunnel is on the table,” Lehner said.
At a hearing on NEC Future in Hartford in January, Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder soundly criticized Alternative 1, which would cost an estimated $80 billion over 30 years. Massive public opposition to the plan followed.
“I understand there is a need for high-speed rail, there’s been a cry for it,” Reemsnyder said. “But that doesn’t mean you have to destroy a community.”
Strong support for coastal route
Meanwhile, other coastal cities lobbied for that plan and another option, Alternative 2, that calls of a corridor to run from New Haven to Hartford through Meriden, and then adds a new line from Hartford to Providence, R.I., with a stop near the University of Connecticut in Storrs. The estimated cost of this proposal is $135 billion.
“I urge you to support Connecticut’s center cities by focusing your recommendations on the existing coastal corridor and the Hartford-Springfield line,” wrote New Haven Chamber of Commerce President Tony Rescigno. “New Haven, and the other cities on these existing routes, need higher speed, higher-frequency service in order to support economic development efforts and access to jobs.”
The South Central Regional Council of Governments, an organization that represents several coastal cities, including West Haven, Branford and Guilford, agrees.
Audubon Connecticut also backed Alternative 1.
“Despite the potential reduction in carbon emissions, the Action Alternatives 2 and 3 present some significant negative impacts on wildlife, important habitats such as Audubon Important Bird Areas, wetlands, grasslands and forest interior habitats,” wrote Stewart Hudson, executive director of Audubon Connecticut. “Audubon Connecticut therefore strongly recommends that Alternative 1, with proper design and combined with an emphasis on completing the New Haven to Springfield commuter line, be selected as the preferred alternative.”
In an analysis of the public comments, the FRA said “there were mixed reviews about the new segment in Alternative 2 between New Haven and Hartford and Providence, R.I. Many felt that this new segment would generate too many environmental impacts, while others welcomed new connections, such as the opportunity to connect to the University of Connecticut at Storrs.”
Others were concerned that none of the proposals include a rail connection to Bradley International Airport.
“This omission is a significant concern…The Amtrak connection to BWI Airport, for example, has provided a major boost for the Maryland/Baltimore/Washington corridor,” one letter said.