Sen. Blumenthal speaks against bypass through Old Lyme at hearing

Sen. Richard Blumenthal has brought to Washington, D.C., concerns expressed by local officials over a potential high-speed rail project through a Connecticut shoreline community.

Blumenthal urged Amtrak's vice president on Tuesday to heed opposition to a potential rail bypass through Old Lyme and reject any plan that would include it.

Blumenthal discussed the Federal Railroad Administration's proposal for future investments in the Northeast Corridor, called NEC FUTURE, during a Senate  Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee hearing.

One of the options identified in NEC FUTURE's Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement includes a bypass from Old Saybrook to Kenyon, R.I., that appears to cut through the center of Old Lyme. 

"Unfortunately, some of the ideas the FRA has proposed are frankly half-baked, hare-brained notions that will never come to fruition — including rerouting Amtrak straight through the community of Old Lyme, Connecticut, and other shoreline communities where there is strong, understandable and well-merited opposition," Blumenthal said to Amtrak Vice President Stephen Gardner during the hearing.

"The FRA's time and money in my view would be better spent improving rail rather than on plans that have no realistic notion," the senator said. "I hope you will agree with me that the tracks of Amtrak would never go through Old Lyme, Connecticut."

According to a video of the remarks, Gardner responded that while he can't speak for the FRA, which is leading the NEC FUTURE effort, he knows the FRA is working with Old Lyme and Connecticut to address concerns as it considers a final environmental impact statement.

Blumenthal's statement was welcomed Wednesday, with Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder calling it "good news" for the town. 

She said she thinks Blumenthal realizes that the plan for the bypass would have a devastating effect on Old Lyme.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, agreed with Blumenthal and said the focus should be on upgrading safety equipment and existing infrastructure.

He pointed out that the Connecticut River Bridge, a rail bridge between Old Lyme and Old Saybrook, is "way overdue" for an upgrade.

He said that while that's a big project, it's nothing compared to the capital expenses in the NEC FUTURE plan.

"It just seems totally divorced from the real-life challenges that upgrading the Amtrak line requires right now," he said about the NEC FUTURE plan.

The FRA estimates the cost of the Old Saybrook-Kenyon, R.I., bypass at between $10 billion and 15 billion, according to Courtney's office.

About two weeks ago, SECoast, a nonprofit under the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, released a statement that emails — obtained through a Freedom of Information request — indicate DOT officials discussed in February that the FRA prefers a proposal that would include a bypass through Old Lyme.

The DOT and FRA had responded that the FRA has not chosen a preferred alternative.

Last week, a group that included Reemsnyder; state Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Saybrook; state Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme; SECoast Executive Director Gregory Stroud; and local officials and congressional aides met in Old Lyme with state Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker.

Carney said he, Formica, Reemsnyder and Stroud, have been working to get the bypass plan — a proposal that has caused considerable upset in the community — off the table.

"I'm just going to keep the pressure on to hopefully get this removed," said Carney, adding that he's pressing for a public meeting with the FRA and/or consultants Parsons Brinckerhoff.

During the meeting last week, Redeker encouraged the group to ask the FRA to hold a public meeting in Old Lyme, which he would support, Reemsnyder said. 

Redeker also told them that he does not believe the FRA has made a decision, Reemsnyder said.

Formica said he appreciates that Redeker, who Formica said stressed the need for long-term planning, met with the group.

But Formica called the bypass "unrealistic" and said the group discussed the need to upgrade existing tracks.

"This is just a completely unacceptable path for a high-speed train, in the middle of communities that are already established, irrespective of the environmental concerns," Formica said. 

Last month, Reemsnyder wrote to NEC FUTURE Program Manager Rebecca Reyes-Alicea that the community hopes the bypass — which Old Lyme officials have been told would be an underground tunnel, if chosen —  will not be included in the preferred alternative.

In the letter, Reemsnyder urged the FRA to have professionals conduct "in-depth research and analysis of all relevant risks and variables" of the project before making any decision that would include the bypass.

She also provided a list of local stakeholders whose comments should be considered in the process. 

The NEC FUTURE proposal includes three possible alternatives, as well as a "no action" alternative.

A decision and final environmental impact statement will be issued this year, and a service development plan will be released in 2017, according to the project website. 

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

"Alternative 3" includes 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.

Sen. Chris Murphy, also a Democrat, along with Blumenthal and Courtney, in a February letter urged the FRA to listen to the concerns of local communities that would be affected by the project.

k.drelich@theday.com

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