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In its application for $8.2 million in federal funding to upgrade a critical rail corridor, Connecticut has made a strong case that this strategic government investment could pay enormous dividends in economic growth.
State officials and Connecticut's representatives in Washington are pushing hard for the funding under the TIGER program - Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery - as they should be. The TIGER program was originally part of the $830 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which helped pulled the country out of the Great Recession.
Congress has repeatedly refunded the TIGER grants because they have proved successful in spurring economic growth. Unlike earmarks of the past, these are competitive grants, with projects assessed by the U.S. Department of Transportation on their ability to improve safety, generate economic growth, improve quality of life in a region and help the environment.
On all counts, the proposed Connecticut rail project is worthy of funding.
If funded, the project would target improvements to the New England Central Rail line that runs from New London's deep-water port to the Vermont-Canadian border. In Connecticut, the line does not meet the 286,000-pound railcar capacity standard for freight established by the Association of American Railroads in 1995. It means railcars on the Connecticut section of the line can only be partially loaded. This discourages shipping companies from using the line, in turn resulting in the under utilization of the New London port.
The proposed project would replace 19 miles of older, jointed rails with continuous welded rail capable of handling the standard loads. Also planned is the installation of 15,000 new rail ties. Though matching grants are not required by the program, the train company has agreed to invest $2 million. Connecticut has allocated $3.6 million to upgrade bridges and make track improvements along sections of the line.
Massachusetts and Vermont, the latter using economic recovery funds, have upgraded the rails in their states. With Connecticut improvements, it would provide a modern, viable freight line up the spine of New England. The New London port would become a more attractive destination for freighters, helping realize its potential as an economic engine. All along the revitalized corridor, vacant industrial sites could potentially be redeveloped for use as modern manufacturing operations.
Improving the ability to move freight on this critical rail should mean fewer trucks on local highways, providing an environmental benefit and reducing traffic congestion.
The improved line would hold the potential for future passenger service. It passes near several universities - Connecticut College, Eastern Connecticut State University, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, the University of Connecticut, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst among them - and could also tie into the Mohegan Sun entertainment complex.
"While there is never a shortage of worthy infrastructure projects to be done, the NECR upgrade has the potential to have the greatest impact on our state's economy," wrote U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney in a statement seeking this newspaper's support for the grant application.
"Connecticut needs this vital freight corridor to develop our state-owned deep-water port in New London, allow economic revitalization in this region and reduce costs for transportation and mobility," wrote Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in an April 25 letter to Anthony Foxx, secretary of transportation.
With $600 million in grants available in this round of funding, competition is fierce, said Rep. Courtney. Connecticut has benefitted from TIGER grants before, but never in eastern Connecticut. This project would provide a big economic boost. It meets all the grant criteria and deserves serious consideration by the DOT.