Washington — Bowing to local pressure, the Federal Railroad Administration has dropped plans for a controversial new rail line along the eastern Connecticut shore from its ambitious project to overhaul the railroad system in the Northeast corridor.
The FRA’s NEC Future plan had proposed construction of new tracks to bypass existing ones along the coast from Old Saybrook to Rhode Island. The new line would have run through Old Lyme and other eastern Connecticut towns.
In its “Record of Decision,” released Wednesday the FRA proposes upgrading and adding rail along most of the Northeast corridor from Washington, D.C., to New Haven. It would also support existing state plans to upgrade the rail line from New Haven, through Hartford, to Springfield, Mass.
But on FRA dropped plans to add new tracks from New Haven to Providence, preferring instead to focus on increased maintenance and repair of the existing rail line and allowing Connecticut and Rhode Island to work with the FRA and other states, including Massachusetts, on a “capacity study” that could include alternatives to the existing route.
There is no timetable for the capacity study, allowing for “a healthy process” to determine how to improve rail service in eastern Connecticut, said Rebecca Reyes-Alicia, who is managing the Northeast Corridor project for the agency.
She also said “there was no consensus” for the proposed Old Saybrook to Rhode Island bypass.
Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said, “I’m really pleased that they listened to reason.” Gov. Dannel Malloy, also said he is happy the FRA dropped the bypass from its Record of Decision.
“They have responded directly to requests made by the State of Connecticut to enable significant and necessary investments to address an estimated $38 billion backlog in state-of-good-repair assets, and we thank them for their consideration of our concerns,” the governor said.
Residents of Old Lyme spearheaded a rebellion because of concerns that faster rail speeds would come at a cost to the historic character of the southeast corner of the state. The rebellion spread to Rhode Island.
There were also worries the new rail corridor in eastern Connecticut would bypass New London, Groton and Stonington.
State officials and residents, as well as a number of state historical societies and environmental groups, sent hundreds of letters to the Federal Railroad Administration since the beginning of the year to try to influence the agency, and the lobbying appears to have paid off.
The Connecticut Audubon Society called the FRA’s decision “a considerable victory for conservation and environmental protection in southeastern Connecticut.”
The environmental group had opposed the bypass, saying it could hurt the habitat of four endangered or threatened species: Atlantic sturgeon, shortnose sturgeon, Roseate Terns and Piping Plovers.
“Based on that flaw, Connecticut Audubon called for further study of the route through southeastern Connecticut, and for greater involvement by local officials and residents,” said Claudia Weicker, chair of the Connecticut Audubon Society’s Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center.
Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, said she hoped the FRA’s decision “paves the way for an inland high-speed route through central Connecticut, which would be transformative for local economies throughout our state.”
“I will continue to push for an inland route that connects to the communities of Connecticut’s Fifth District,” Esty said.
Courtney said, “From the start, the creation of a new bypass was a proposal untethered from reality.”
He said the focus on maintenance and upgrades to existing rail lines in eastern Connecticut means the railroad bridge over the Connecticut River between Old Saybrook and Old Lyme will be a priority.
Greg Stroud, director of special projects for the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, a leader of the opposition, said that “while we still have significant concerns, particularly as the plan impacts Fairfield County, we believe this Record of Decision provides the people of southern New England the breathing room necessary to develop better solutions than projects like the proposed Kenyon to Old Saybrook Bypass.”
Reyes-Alicia said the FRA heard the concerns from eastern Connecticut “loud and clear.”
There also were concerns that NEC Future’s plan to lay new tracks from New Rochelle, N.Y., to the Greens Farms section of Westport, coupled with any plans to expand I-95, could have a negative impact on certain communities and neighborhoods in Fairfield County.
The Record of Decision does not address those concerns, nor those of some who wanted the NEC Future plan to include a rail link to Bradley International Airport.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he is “deeply concerned about possible impact to communities in Fairfield County, and I urge the FRA to work closely with residents to enhance rail service while respecting local needs. ”
Blumenthal also said there is no need to “spend a single penny or minute” studying the possibility of an Old Saybrook-to-Rhode Island bypass.
Connecticut would be the most affected state among the eight involved in NEC Future, expected to cost $120 billion to $150 billion and take 25 years to upgrade train service in the nation’s busiest rail corridor.
Demographers project that between 2010 and 2040, the population in the Northeast Corridor will grow to 64 million, an increase of roughly 23 percent. Six of Amtrak’s busiest stations are in the corridor, with New York and Washington, D.C., ranked first and second for passenger traffic.
The next step in the process is for the FRA to develop a “Services Development Plan” with the states that focuses on the benefits and costs of implementing the selected NEC Future route and begins to work out how the ambitious plan will be paid for — probably a partnership between the states, the federal government and the NEC railroads.
Reyes-Alicia said the FRA developed its plan to upgrade the Northeast corridor “agnostic to funding,” or without consideration of how the plan would be paid for.