Updated on Wednesday at 11:55 p.m. and Thursday at 11:53 a.m.
Old Lyme — Less than an hour after a top federal rail administrator Wednesday renewed her agency’s promise not to build an aerial rail line through Old Lyme’s historic district, a spokesman for the agency backpedaled on the statement and said it could not be ruled out entirely.
The spokesman’s comment, which he later amended twice, was in response to a question from the CT Mirror about whether an elevated rail track would be considered again if a tunnel under the historic district could not be constructed. Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder first raised questions about the feasibility of a tunnel during a public meeting Wednesday afternoon on a major railroad improvement project in the Northeast.
Reemsnyder asked whether the Federal Railroad Administration had evaluated the environmental and logistical obstacles in constructing a tunnel, which is the current solution being considered to address the challenge of rerouting the existing rail line in the area.
Rebecca Reyes-Alicea, program manager for the Northeast Corridor (NEC), said it had not been evaluated, nor would it be until the next phase of the improvement plan, NEC Future, begins in 2017.
Earlier in the meeting, Reyes-Alicea told more than 500 people in the at-capacity auditorium in Lyme-Old Lyme High School that their concerns about an elevated railway through the former artists’ colony had been heard “loud and clear.”
“We did make a commitment – and this is in large part because of our initial conversations – a commitment not to go with an aerial structure,” Reyes-Alicea said. “Again, it’s all representative in nature in terms of the routing options and the locations of that, but we also just want to make sure that we’re being responsive, and committing to not doing an aerial structure.”
But after the event concluded, Marc Willis, an FRA spokesman, was asked about the possibility of an environmental or logistical obstacle preventing the construction of a tunnel. He said he could not rule out the possibility of going back to an aerial structure in the next phase of the project called Tier II.
“Everything will be looked at in Tier II,” Willis said. When pressed on whether that would include an aerial structure, he said, “I can’t say. I can’t say right now.”
“Right now, we don’t know,” Willis added.
But in two follow-up statements, these comments were later clarified and retracted, reaffirming the commitment by Reyes-Alicea and the agency not to build an aerial structure.
Willis said late Wednesday evening his earlier remarks were in reference the FRA’s procedure when shifting from Tier I to Tier II, where the process essentially “starts all over again.” He said the residents’ clear and overwhelming opposition to an aerial structure – and the agency’s commitment not to build one – “would lead the direction of the conversation in Tier II.”
In an additional statement Thursday morning, Willis further clarified earlier comments.
“If the new segment is included in the final vision for the Northeast Corridor, FRA has committed to not have an aerial structure through the historic district of Old Lyme,” Willis said. “A tunnel is on the table.”
“The next step in the process – if we get there – is the Tier II review, which includes additional opportunities for input from leaders and citizens,” Willis added.
An elevated track in other parts of Old Lyme has not been ruled out, however. The Connecticut River becomes wider north and south of the historic district, presenting a significant topographical challenge if a tunnel is not feasible.
Two major bridges – the Raymond E. Baldwin Bridge and the Connecticut River Railroad Bridge – cross at the north and south ends of a narrow section of the river between Old Lyme and Old Saybrook. The Baldwin Bridge, at the north end of the section, carries I-95 and U.S. Route 1 across the river. The Connecticut River Railroad Bridge is on the south end and services Amtrak and other trains.
The FRA’s proposal originally called for the construction of a new railroad bridge to replace the existing one, which is more than 100 years old. The new bridge was envisioned to run alongside the Baldwin Bridge before heading into Old Lyme’s historic district. This sparked outraged from the local community, and prompted FRA officials to promise earlier this year not to build an elevated track through the historic district.
The FRA is currently in Tier I, the first phase of developing a plan to improve rail service from Boston to Washington, D.C., within the next half-century. The agency is considering four plans of varying scope to accomplish this goal. One of the four would leave existing rail infrastructure unchanged and spend $20 billion to upgrade existing infrastructure. The remaining three – known as Alternatives 1, 2 and 3 – would add new rail lines in the Northeast and cost between $64 billion and $308 billion, bringing high-speed rail to the region.
A decision on which proposal the FRA will recommend is expected by the end of the year.
Southeastern Connecticut residents have strongly protested Alternative 1, a coastal bypass that would skip the winding rail lines that exist in the section between Old Saybrook and Kenyon, R.I. At Wednesday night’s meeting with Reyes-Alicia, residents and local officials were united in their message: Fix our railway, don’t change it.
The meeting, which was the highest-attended event held by the FRA since unveiling the plan in November, came after months of pressure from residents and elected officials. Reyes-Alicea’s presentation Wednesday was meant to address concerns about a proposed coastal bypass on the heavily traveled rail line that runs through southeastern Connecticut into Rhode Island.
Many in Connecticut are concerned faster rail speeds will come at a cost to the historic character of the southeast region of the state and its environment, especially if it involves an above-ground route through Old Lyme’s historic district as the initial draft of Alternative 1 proposes.
Reemsnyder said she takes the FRA at its word in its original commitment not to build an aerial structure, but said she and others will not sit idly by if they go back on it.
“I will hold them to their word,” Reemsnyder said.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and a pair of state lawmakers said they would tie themselves down on the rail tracks if the proposal is accepted as-is.
“They will, in fact, have to untie me from the tracks,” Blumenthal said. The crowd responded with thunderous applause.
Reemsynder said she envisions the “whole community” joining Blumenthal and others on the rails if the FRA goes back on its commitment.
But while Reemsnyder still trusts the FRA’s commitment, one of the earliest opposition organizers was not surprised by an indication they may be reconsidering.
Gregory Stroud, executive director of the nonprofit group SECoast, said he had asked other federal officials the same question, and they either did not respond or “hedged” their questions.
“This is what Old Lyme most fears – that it’s a bait-and-switch,” Stroud said. “It was so quick. They reverted so quickly to a tunnel that it seemed odd to us at the time.”
Despite the FRA’s mixed messaging, Stroud said he still considered the event a success because of the high turnout and united bipartisan local opposition to the proposal, which was on full display for Reyes-Alicea.
People clapped and cheered as local, state and federal officials decried the proposed bypass.
Blumenthal said he would “fight as long and hard as possible” to block the proposal as it stands.
“I say that as a member, respectfully, of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that has jurisdiction over your budget,” Blumenthal said, looking directly at Reyes-Alicea.
Numerous elected officials at the event said would rather see the federal government invest in improvements to the existing infrastructure. Many said they still hoped the FRA could accomplish its goal of establishing high-speed rail in the Northeast.
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said the people gathered were not “anti-Amtrak or anti-passenger rail,” but did not want to see culturally significant sites like Old Lyme’s historic district – a former artists’ colony during the impressionist period – disrupted or destroyed by a new rail line.
Many local officials feared the impact Alternative 1 would have on their cities and towns. New London Mayor Michael Passaro said the last major federal infrastructure project a half-century ago took 10 percent of his city’s land and sent it spiraling economically in a “vicious cycle.”
“This project, if the bypass is to go through, would finish us off,” Passaro said. “That would be the end.”
Old Saybrook First Selectman Carl Fortuna said he feared the economic impact of potentially adjusting the route in his town away from the existing train station. He said the town relies on it as an economic hub, and added that the state has allocated significant amounts of money to improve it in recent years.
The most vocal supporter of maintaining the existing line was Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons, a former Republican congressman from the 2nd District. He said federal dollars need to go toward improving existing services and safety.
“Why can’t we just fix what we already have?” Simmons asked. “Forget the bypass.”
Reyes-Alicea said during her presentation that maintaining the existing line would be difficult, as demand is expected to double in the New York-Connecticut-Massachusetts section by 2040. Demand in the New Haven to Providence corridor is already at capacity, she said.
The three alternatives proposed by the FRA, Reyes-Alicea said, would allow them to maintain (Alternative 1), grow (Alternative 2) or transform (Alternative 3) the existing lines in meaningful ways to accommodate that growth, she said.
While Alternative 1 only makes relatively small changes in Connecticut, Alternatives 2 and 3 call for more expansive changes in the state.
Alternative 2 proposes extending service into Hartford, then continuing on to the University of Connecticut’s campus in Storrs and Providence before arriving in Boston. This proposal is estimated to cost $128 billion.
Alternative 3 creates that route, and an additional route from White Plains, N.Y. through Danbury, Waterbury, Hartford and then on to Worcester, Mass. before arriving in Boston. A tunnel would also be created to connect Suffolk, N.Y. on Long Island to New Haven. This is estimated to cost $308 billion.
Reyes-Alicea said on several occasions that alternatives do not constitute final recommendations, which was her response to many of the concerns voiced by local residents. The final product could be a slightly modified version of an proposal, or could combine elements of multiple plans.