Old Lyme officials speak out against rail alternative

Officials representing Old Lyme and its organizations spoke out Wednesday against an alternative rail plan that would bring tracks through the town's business and artistic center.

They were talking about one of the options included in the NEC Future Tier 1 Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

The Federal Railroad Administration created NEC Future in 2012 "to define, evaluate and prioritize future investments in the Northeast Corridor."

NEC Future's Alternative 1, which is one of four options presented for the Northeast Corridor, would run new tracks from Old Saybrook to Kenyon, R.I. — including right near Interstate 95 in Old Lyme.

During a news conference at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, whose attendees included state Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, and RiverCOG Executive Director Samuel S. Gold, speakers supported improving the existing rail system but not installing new tracks as proposed in that alternative.

"The plan that was presented really decimates our historic district, our only commercial center," Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie A. Reemsnyder said. "It wipes out the major facilities that are a part of our culture and they're economic drivers in our town. There is no benefit to our community."

There is also the potential environmental impact, and Reemsnyder said, "We cannot risk doing damage to the Connecticut River Estuary. ... We should all be fighting for that."

She said she learned that there were originally about 100 plans for the Northeast Corridor that were narrowed down to four.

One of those four is to do nothing, which she said really just serves to show what would be accomplished with the other three.

Alternative 1 would cost $62 billion, less than the other projects.

"We're very concerned they've narrowed it down to three, and that really puts us in the process," Reemsnyder said.

Not only that, but local officials weren't contacted by the people who created the NEC Future alternatives. Most heard about the proposals just three weeks ago.

State Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Saybrook, said that he, like Reemsnyder, heard about it from a constituent. Florence Griswold Museum Director Jeff Andersen learned of it when he read an article in The Day.

"I thought, 'My God, they can't be serious. This will destroy Old Lyme,'" Andersen said.

He added, "It became clear no one had taken time to research the negative impact on the town or to talk to stakeholders and constituents ... We feel blindsided by this development."

Andersen spoke about the artistic history of Old Lyme and how it's part of the nation's heritage.

The Flo Gris, the Lyme Art Association and the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts are part of the Old Lyme Historic District, and the district was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as well. The Flo Gris was declared a National Historic Landmark.

Andersen said it was ironic that the Federal Railroad Administration has ignored these supposed protective designations.

Alternative 1, he said, "would replace cultural heritage with an industrial corridor that slices through the heart of the Old Lyme Historic District, irrevocably damaging our community. Appallingly, judging from the maps ... it would destroy, presumably through eminent domain, one of the town's most historic properties, the 1817 John Sill House on the campus of the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts."

He added, "We can't let the destruction of that landmark or the town as a whole happen. And we won't."

Reemsnyder noted that the rail plan is a utility project and so the swath of impact would be nearly a mile wide.

"So it just has an impact on everything we call Old Lyme," she said.

From the federal proposal, town officials only have a general map — rather than detailed descriptions — of where the rails might go.

The map shows them going south of I-95, hugging the highway near Lyme Academy, and at some point crossing I-95, although it's not clear exactly where.

With the high-speed train that would run on these tracks, the goal is to shave about a half-hour off the time between Washington, D.C., and Boston, Reemsnyder said.

She added that Connecticut would be a pass-through state and the train wouldn't "be stopping for any of us."

Alternative 1 calls for a new segment of tracks starting east of the Old Saybrook station and then shifting north of the current tracks (which would remain in place), crossing the Connecticut River on a to-be-built bridge and then running parallel to Interstate 95 through Old Lyme and East Lyme.

The NEC Future description said that it then "shifts northeast and continues a short distance parallel to I-395 in Waterford before crossing to the south of I-395 in tunnel and continuing east adjacent to I-95. The segment crosses the Thames River in New London, between the eastbound and westbound bridge spans of I-95 and continues on embankment or aerial structure parallel to I-95 through Groton and Stonington, crossing the Pawcatuck River north of the existing NEC into Westerly, Rhode Island."

Officials from the town and region have written to the Federal Railroad Administration.

They have pointed out errors they found and their concerns with the NEC Future Alternative 1's Draft Environmental Impact Statement. Reemsnyder attended a Federal Railroad Administration hearing.

The comment period, which has been extended, continues through Tuesday. The speakers at Wednesday's news conference encouraged people to make their opinions known, which they can do at necfuture.com/get_involved or by emailing comment@necfuture.com.

Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, D-Conn. and Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, wrote a letter to Federal Railroad Administration Administrator Sarah Feinberg that said, in part, "it appears that little engagement was done in these communities to assess even the preliminary views and concerns of those potentially impacted by the proposed new segment in Alternative 1 prior to inclusion in the report."

They asked the FRA to host listening sessions in the affected area to hear residents' views and concerns.

When the Federal Railroad Administration was contacted Wednesday about the issues raised at the news conference, Matthew Lehner, public affairs director, said in a statement, "The Federal Railroad Administration wants feedback — good and bad — from Old Lyme and all communities along the Northeast Corridor on the four draft visions proposed in NEC FUTURE."

Reemsnyder said that the town is now getting its message out.

"The one thing I have heard from people I have reached out to is that Old Lyme is being heard loud and clear. .... I have reason to have hope, but it doesn't mean we're going to stop making sure we're heard until that's taken off of their plan," she said.

k.dorsey@theday.com

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