New rail line gathering steam

Nine towns and five regional planning agencies spread across three states are on the verge of signing an agreement that will consolidate efforts to expand freight and passenger rail service from New London to Brattleboro, Vt.

Called the Central Corridor Line, the plan aims to boost business, industry and tourism by using more than 100 miles of existing freight railways owned by New England Central Railroad.

The line would start in New London and have stops at the Mohegan Sun Casino and in Norwich, Willimantic, Mansfield, Storrs and Stafford Springs. Stops would continue in Palmer, Amherst and Millers Falls in Massachusetts before the line ends in Brattleboro.

The agreement, scheduled to be signed this week, calls for the municipalities and regional planning agencies to come together to seek funding for the approximate $100 million project. The agreement also calls for the parties to work toward a feasibility study and a business plan.

Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom said Thursday that the agreement is a sign that the parties are pursuing the project in earnest. He added that the municipalities are also working to obtain federal money for the restoration of the railroad tracks.

James S. Butler, executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, said the agreement will serve as a way to get all the parties in the same room talking with one another. SCCOG, a regional planning agency that works with the region's 20 towns, could administer any grants received for the rail project, according to the agreement.

Todd O'Donnell, a part owner of Union Station in New London and an advocate of the rail project, said the agreement is proof of broad support for the rail service.

He is particularly optimistic about the potential boost to tourism. For example, he said tourists could park their cars in Norwich or Willimantic and use the rail service to come to New London for events such as OpSail. The event will return to New London in 2012 and brings tall ships from all over the world to the city.

"It can happen so quickly once we get support from the state of Connecticut," O'Donnell said of the expanded rail service. "This can happen rapidly. The tracks are already there, and it's a low-cost way to improve both passenger and freight traffic in our area."

Approximately half of the project cost will be for railroad track upgrades needed to accommodate modern trains. The other half would be used on new rail cars and to build and upgrade stations at stops along the rail.

The proposal has also been marketed as a "college run," a service that would create a new means of transportation for college students. The rail service would run by the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, Connecticut College, the University of Connecticut in Storrs and the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

Towns and agencies that are expected to sign an agreement on the Central Corridor Line include: New London, Norwich, Mansfield, Windham, Stafford, Palmer, Mass., Amherst, Mass., Montague, Mass., Brattleboro, Vt.

Agencies: Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, Windham Regional Council of Governments, Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, Franklin Regional Council of Governments, Windham Regional Commission

jeff.johnson@theday.com

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