Organization says emails show FRA wants bypass through Old Lyme

Old Lyme — Local foes of a proposal to build a new high-speed rail line through Old Lyme are concerned that despite claims no decision on a route has been made, officials have signaled that favor going through the town.

A nonprofit organization has obtained emails that it says show state Department of Transportation officials discussed in February that the Federal Railroad Administration prefers a rail investment proposal that would include a new Old Saybrook-Kenyon, R.I., rail segment — cutting through Old Lyme.

SECoast, under the umbrella of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, made the announcement this week in a news release and on Facebook. 

The FRA said in response that it has not made a decision on its preferred alternative.

The state DOT officials sent the emails shortly after the comment period on the "Tier 1" draft environmental impact statement for NEC FUTURE, a long-term investment proposal for the Northeast Corridor, ended in mid-February.

The environmental impact statement proposes three alternatives, as well as a "no action" alternative, for future rail investments.

"Alternative 1," which includes an Old Saybrook-Kenyon, R.I., bypass that would cut through Old Lyme, has provoked strong opposition in Old Lyme.

"Alternative 2" contemplates a new "supplemental route" from New Haven to Hartford, and then to Providence, among other features, according to the NEC FUTURE website.

"Alternative 3" proposes a "second spine" of tracks adjacent to the existing tracks from Washington, D.C., to New York City, and outlines four possible paths between New York City and Boston.

SECoast Executive Director Gregory Stroud said in a news release this week that the emails obtained through a Freedom of Information request "appear to confirm Federal Railroad Administration plans for a Kenyon, Rhode Island to Old Saybrook, Connecticut high speed rail bypass through Old Lyme in or adjacent to the I-95 corridor."

"These plans would also include a separate New Haven to Springfield, Massachusetts route as part of a newly 'modified' NEC Future: Alternative 2 proposal," he said.

State DOT Spokesman Judd Everhart confirmed that the DOT released the emails.

But he said the DOT still is awaiting a decision from the FRA on a "preferred alternative" for an upgrade of the corridor.

He noted that they are nowhere near choosing a final design for expansion in the corridor, never mind actually starting construction.

"FRA has not yet selected a vision, or even potential routes, for the Northeast Corridor," Matthew Lehner, director of communications for the FRA, said in an emailed statement.

"We have met with many leaders and residents throughout the corridor, including in Connecticut, and have talked with them about their concerns. We are taking these opinions into account as we continue our work," he said in the email.

Stroud references a Feb. 18 email from state DOT Commissioner James P. Redeker to Richard W. Andreski, the DOT's public transportation chief.

In the email, Redeker states that "Dave Carol tells me the NEC Future team will be selecting Alt. 2 as the preferred alternative...."

Redeker continues later in the email: "Also, they will be leaving the Kenyon bypass for the spine to Boston, because they are completely focused on delivering 4 track capacity to Boston."

Stroud says Carol is of Parsons Brinckerhoff.

Carol is listed as program manager of Parsons Brinkerhoff/AECOM Joint Venture on the NEC FUTURE's website.  

A Feb. 26 email from Andreski to Redeker and Deputy DOT Commissioner Anna M. Barry, states: "Rebecca explained the various adjustments they were making in response to public comments. For example, the Old Lyme Kenyon Bypass concept is being modified. Hartford Line will be included as an additional feeder spine to the NEC with up to 4 intercity trains per hour originating or ending in Springfield."

"We asked whether the full rapid transit-style service on the NHL was considered. The answer is yes," the email says.

"Rebecca stated they recognize more work is needed on the alternative concepts and development of a near term strategy. Still I believe they are pressing forward on Alternative 2 with the mods described above," it said.

Stroud said Rebecca refers to Rebecca Reyes-Alicea, FRA program manager for NEC FUTURE.

The FRA is expected to release a decision on its preferred alternative this year and develop a service plan next year, according to NEC FUTURE's website.

After seeing the announcement, Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder said she has reached out to both the DOT and FRA for feedback.

She said she was told the FRA would respond to her.

U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy and Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, had sent a letter in early February to the FRA that encouraged additional community outreach and noted that a bypass through the center of Old Lyme would impact "the cultural, historical and geographic integrity of the town."

"I strenuously and strongly oppose this plan, because it threatens to destroy historically significant and environmentally sensitive areas," Blumenthal said Friday in a phone interview. "It should be soundly and immediately rejected by the Federal Railroad Administration."

Blumenthal, who serves on the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, stressed the importance of investments in the railroad network and the FRA's development of a vision that will meet the needs of the northeast.

But he called the idea to reroute rail through the inland area "a half-baked and harebrained notion" that would never come to fruition because it violates principles of historic preservation and environmental conservation.

He said the money spent studying the idea, which southeastern Connecticut is opposed to, could better be spent fixing bridges and railroad tracks. 

Dana Honor, a Murphy spokeswoman, said Thursday that "There has not yet been any official ruling on which plan the FRA will choose, but Sen. Murphy will continue urging all agencies involved to listen to the people of Old Lyme and come to a decision that benefits both Connecticut travelers and those who call the area home."

Meanwhile, representatives from the NEC FUTURE team told Old Lyme officials this spring that if the Old Saybrook-Kenyon bypass is chosen as part of the recommended plan, then it would be built as an underground tunnel, rather than an aerial structure, in Old Lyme, according to Reemsnyder.

Reemsnyder sent a letter to the FRA about three weeks ago requesting that experts in a host of fields, including land-use and the environment, be allowed to weigh in before any firm decisions are made about a tunnel, if a bypass is chosen as part of its preferred option.

Following the release of the emails, Daniel Mackay, executive director of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, said it's "a huge disappointment" that it appears the FRA already made a decision in February.

He said the FRA and its consultants should face the public. 

Stroud said SECoast is asking for a public meeting in New London County and is seeking a clear commitment that a bridge in Old Lyme has been ruled out.

SECoast also is requesting the removal of the bypass from the preferred route until there has been proper study of its cultural, historic, economic and environmental impacts.

Stroud said NEC FUTURE would replace a master plan for rail in the Northeast Corridor dating back to 1978.

"We look at this as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape rail-building and priorities in Connecticut for the next 25 years," he said. "This demands openness and public outreach, and we believe, unfortunately, that these emails are evidence of just the opposite."

k.drelich@theday.com

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