Shoreline Officials Want To Hit The Brakes On Federal Railroad Proposal

A  federal proposal to run tracks for Amtrak high-speed trains through a new route in affluent Fairfield County drew fire Thursday from the mayor of the region’s second-biggest city.

Mayor David Martin said Thursday he likes the plan to expand capacity at Stamford’s busy train station. But he’s against building new track routes to Greenwich and to Westport that might eat into his city’s neighborhoods or commercial base.

“This plan looks more like fantasy than fact, and we’re going to fight it,” U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal told reporters.

The Federal Railroad Administration’s proposal to overhaul sections of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor route in Connecticut has already hit heavy resistance in southeastern Connecticut, where the agency wants a new 30-mile inland segment to bypass the curving, twisting tracks between Old Saybrook and Kenyon, R.I.

Martin is the first Fairfield County leader to raise concerns about how it would affect the southwestern region, but Blumenthal predicted that opposition will keep growing.

“The feeling in Stamford is similar to southeastern Connecticut: People want safe, reliable and fast trains, but the devil is in the details,” Blumenthal said.

The FRA met stiff opposition in Connecticut last week when it released a massive report documenting how it wants to modernize Amtrak’s heavily used but badly deteriorating 456-mile Northeast Corridor route from Washington, D.C. to Boston.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Sen. Chris Murphy, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney and Blumenthal all slammed the proposal for Connecticut, where Amtrak’s Acela and Northeast Regional trains run along the shoreline from Greenwich to Stonington.

The Old Saybrook bypass would “eviscerate neighborhoods, historic landmarks and real estate values,” they said in a joint statement condemning the idea.

The FRA maps also suggest new tracks between eastern Greenwich and Stamford’s train station, and another – far longer – new segment from east of the station to Westport.

The FRA hasn’t specified precisely where it would build new tracks; its report refers to constructing “aerial structures” above I-95 and possibly using the highway’s embankments, but FRA staffers emphasize that exact routings would be have to be worked out with local officials. The report and maps are at http://www.necfuture.com/flipbook/feis_highlights/default.html#4/z.

Opponents and the FRA both acknowledge that there’s currently no funding source, and Blumenthal has said the potential $10 billion to $30 billion cost of a mile-long tunnel beneath Old Lyme is simply unaffordable.

On Thursday, about 100 southeastern Connecticut residents gathered at town hall to discuss a strategy for blocking the Old Saybrook bypass. SECoast, a regional organization leading the fight, warned of a lawsuit if the plan advances.

The FRA wants a plan to rebuild the Northeast Corridor to accommodate a much more frequent schedule of next-generation Acela trains as well as more Northeast Regional service. The corridor links Boston, New York, Trenton, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., a congested mega-hub of people and jobs that’s expected to grow over the next three decades.

The agency wants to clear chokepoints and slow zones, allowing for faster runs and far more trains as the schedule expands over the next several decades.

In Connecticut, that means shaving 20 percent off the travel time of Acela’s Boston to New York City run by building modern tracks on straight alignments and free of grade crossings.

“Rather than spending billions to save 25 minutes on travel time, why not invest millions to save five minutes on parking, five minutes on ticketing, five minutes on reliability, five minutes on connectivity?,” said Gregory Stroud, head of SECoast.

“For many travelers the 25 extra minutes spent in a comfortable seat, writing email, is the least of their worries. Let’s invest first in longer trains, in safer closer-spaced trains through positive train control. With limited dollars let’s invest in the New Haven to Springfield corridor, which will nurture Connecticut communities, not destroy them,” he said.

The FRA has emphasized that without state support, the proposal won’t move forward.

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