The Naugatuck Valley is a special place. The history is rich, the hills, rivers, ponds, and forests are beautiful, and the people are salt of the earth and hold a deep sense of community. We’re a big-hearted, resilient bunch —a middle and working-class community full of grit and grace. We’re tough, and we look out for our neighbors.
In the past, we were the economic heartbeat of Connecticut. Today, the cities and towns along the Waterbury Rail Line are home to the first, second, fifth and 22nd most economically distressed municipalities in the state of Connecticut, out of 169 cities and towns. Median incomes in Ansonia and Derby are far below the state average, and unemployment is too high. If you know our people, you know it is wise never to count the Valley out.
Starting my tenure representing Ansonia and Derby just two years ago, I quickly started pressing for advancement on Waterbury Rail Line improvements for increased service to our branch. At the capitol, I often discuss the numbers: the pockets of poverty, the ALICE Rates, the downtown developments that can’t seem to get off the ground, and the rightful frustration of my neighbors who want what everyone else wants –economic stability, a thriving place to call home, good schools and amenities in their community, and meaningful investment from the state to help this become a reality.
It was a shock in 2019 to learn that I was the only legislator from the Naugatuck Valley to testify before the Transportation Committee calling for increased service for the Waterbury Rail Line.
So, I set to work building a coalition of support, advocating to the chair of the Transportation Committee, then to the governor, and my colleagues in the region. We recently brought in Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner David Lehman to see first-hand the pending redevelopment projects in our downtown, hear of the developers who consistently ask, “What about the trains?” and join the effort in advocating for the Waterbury Rail Line.
I found proactive allies in folks like Rep. Geraldo Reyes of Waterbury and Mayor Pete Hess of Naugatuck. He organized Valley mayors for a day of action and spoke on their behalf while testifying to the Transportation Committee in 2020. Jim Gildea, Chair of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council, and Rick Dunne, Executive Director of the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments, also were strong partners in this effort. They lent their voices, expertise, and networks to inform and advocate alongside us with state agency leaders.
I also took an active role in pushing the ongoing rail improvements forward by pressing the utility companies, the Department of Transportation, and others to get the job done.
The facts have always been on our side: the last time the state increased service on our line, ridership went up 40%. The physical line improvements are nearly complete. When COVID-19 struck, ridership went down sharply across the state– but the Waterbury Rail Line held its own, seeing the smallest decrease in ridership in the state.
We deserve increased investment in our rail line. It will spur economic growth.
For residents of the Naugatuck Valley, whether you ride the train or not, increased rail service will directly and positively affect your life. Increased and reliable rail service means increases in property values. It will attract potential commuters to envision our walkable city centers as their new home and developers to sites like the Ansonia Brass property and Derby’s downtown. New development brings jobs and grand list growth and helps our cities to improve residents’ amenities and lower taxes.
While there are matters to pick apart in Governor’s Lamont’s budget, one thing to indeed celebrate is the investment he proposes to make in the Waterbury Rail Line.
The Governor’s budget document states: “Beginning in FY 2023, $1,227,689 is recommended to increase the number of trains servicing the Waterbury line from 15 to 22 across weekday morning and evening peak as well as off-peak services. The Governor proposes launching an expanded service to align with constituent demands, as the Department of Transportation is completing a $120 million capital project to allow for modern bi-directional rail service in the fast-growing Naugatuck Valley region. It is critically important to align transportation hubs with employment and economic opportunity for our state to thrive.”
Rep. Roland Lemar, who serves as both the House Chair of the Transportation Committee and the Finance Sub-Committee chair on Transportation Bonding, stated: “The Waterbury Line has always carried the greatest potential for rapid utilization and for spurring economic growth. This commitment, coupled with the capital investments we’ve made to date, is exactly what we need for the City of Waterbury and the cities and towns throughout The Valley. This investment has my strongest support and I specifically want to credit Representatives Reyes and Rochelle for their tireless advocacy.”
I hope this is the year we see this significant investment in local rail service increases pass in the final budget. You can count on me to continue leading the fight for it.
State Representative Kara Rochelle, a Democrat, represents the 104th District of the Connecticut House, (Ansonia/Derby).