Opposition to rail line alternative picks up speed

Proposed alternate Northeast Corridor rail line in southeastern Connecticut.
Proposed alternate Northeast Corridor rail line in southeastern Connecticut.

When federal railroad officials unveiled a proposal that included three alternate routes for a high-speed line through New England, Old Lyme officials were shocked. One of the options would cut straight through the heart of the town, oblivious to environmentally sensitive areas and historical sites such as the Florence Griswold Museum, leaders from the town said.

But that option for rerouting Amtrak trains through the region would have a significant impact in other local towns as well, including Stonington, where it would cut through Olde Mistick Village, Mystic Aquarium and a Pawcatuck golf course.

The proposed $10 billion to $15 billion bypass from Old Saybrook to Kenyon, R.I., is one component of Alternative 1 as set forth in the Federal Railroad Administration’s proposal for future investments in the Northeast Corridor, called NEC FUTURE.

Under this option, the new rail line, meant to supplement existing tracks, would cut through Old Lyme's village area and then run roughly parallel to Interstate 95 through East Lyme.

It would then shift northeast and run parallel to Interstate 395 in Waterford before crossing to the south, in a tunnel, and continuing east, adjacent to I-95, according to the NEC FUTURE Tier 1 Draft Environmental Impact Statement, a broad-level review of the plan.

"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," the proposal states.

Opposition first surfaced in Old Lyme, but has now spread to other coastal towns as residents and officials learn of the proposal.

"They're going to have a fight on their hands," said Joyce Resnikoff, co-owner of the 43-year-old Olde Mistick Village.

She said such a rerouting would be devastating to Mystic, which thrives on tourism.

"I can travel all over the world and everyone knows Mystic," she said. "We all work very hard to support tourism here. It's big business."

On Friday, Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy and Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, called for the Federal Railroad Administration to attend a public meeting in Old Lyme.

"... We write to reiterate our call that you ensure the plan reflects the priorities of the people who live and work in the region,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to the FRA.

“To that end, we express our strong opposition to proposals that would route a new rail line through Old Lyme, Connecticut, and we request that you attend a public forum there so that community leaders can explain how to meet our region’s rail needs while honoring historic preservation and environmental protection priorities,” they wrote.

Earlier this month during a congressional hearing, Blumenthal told Amtrak Vice President Stephen Gardner that Alternative 1 was "hare-brained."

Funding questions

NEC FUTURE documents say the planning efforts "will establish a framework for future investment in the corridor through 2040 and beyond."

East Lyme First Selectman Mark Nickerson this week questioned how the federal government would be able to come up with the money to implement the proposal.

He pointed instead to the need to fix crumbling infrastructure and widen I-95 in the state.

Nickerson said he would hope that the NEC FUTURE team would listen to feedback from local communities and work with them to determine a proper rail route.

"They should be coming to a town before releasing a decision and finalizing a plan," he said. "If they haven't done that, then they haven't done their work."

A Record of Decision and a final "Tier 1" environmental review are expected to be issued this year, according to a schedule on NEC FUTURE's website.

A service development plan would be completed next year.

"Certainly, it's a problem for us, as much as it is for every other community," Waterford First Selectman Daniel Steward said of the proposed bypass. "We already have rail lines coming into our communities. To go in a different direction seems bizarre to me."

"I think their bigger step is to fix what they have," Steward later added.

He said he previously had sent a letter to NEC FUTURE that backed Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder's comments opposing the bypass through Old Lyme.

The Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments sent a letter to the railroad administration in February expressing its concerns about how an Old Saybrook-Kenyon, R.I., segment would relate to or disrupt land use and environmental resources in the region and how any of the alternative routes could result in potentially fewer train stops in New London.

At the time, the regional council had discussed concerns over bypassing New London, an important transportation hub, said Groton City Mayor Marian Galbraith, the chairman of the regional council. 

The discussions preceded knowledge of how the new rail segment under Alternative 1 would cut through Old Lyme, which is also a major issue.

Tim Hanser, a member of the board of directors of New London's City Center District, said he is aware of some of the proposed changes and is concerned mostly about the lack of information that has surfaced.

"It has potential to have a regional impact but how can we take a real informed position without knowing the final location," he said.

He said he is scheduling a meeting with Mayor Michael Passero and City Council President Erica Richardson to keep them abreast of any new developments.

Other routes

In the NEC FUTURE document, Alternative 2 calls for tracks that would run from New Haven to Hartford and then to Providence.

Alternative 3 calls for a "second spine" of tracks along the existing tracks from Washington to New York City. It proposes two possible routes between New York City and Hartford and then two others between Hartford and Boston.

The NEC FUTURE proposal also contemplates a "no action" alternative, according to its website.

But it's Alternative 1 that has received the most notice locally.

With that option, after crossing the Mystic River, the proposed line drops south of I-95 into what is now the rear parking lot of Olde Mistick Village and the back of the aquarium.

It then follows I-95 north into Pawcatuck where it veers off to the east, crosses North Anguilla Road and proceeds through the section of the Elm Ridge Golf Course that lies south of Elm Ridge Road. It would run just north of the upscale High Ridge Drive neighborhood and would cross over Liberty Street and parallel Route 78 in Westerly.

Alan Rustici, owner of Elm Ridge Golf Course, said the route is similar to one proposed in the past to extend Route 78 to intersect with Interstate 95.

“I’m all for expanded rail, but we should use the right of ways that we already have,” he said.

Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons agreed, saying the disruption, huge cost and effort of the project would only save riders a few minutes.

He said that when the existing line was electrified for high-speed trains, the Acela cars were designed to tilt so they could navigate the curved tracks in the region without slowing down.

At that time, he said, Amtrak decided not to pursue an inland route because of the cost and complexity of the project as well as the need to take land.

He called the current proposal “ridiculous.”

He said he doubts there would be any congressional funding for such a project that would save passengers' such a small amount of time.

Simmons renewed his call for Amtrak and the FRA to make improvements to the existing line, such as a new bridge over the Connecticut River and installing safety measures at two crossings in Stonington.

SECoast, a nonprofit collaborative that partners with The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, has said that emails it obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request indicate that state Department of Transportation officials discussed in February that the railroad administration prefers a proposal that would include a bypass through Old Lyme.

A petition, sponsored by SECoast, against the Old Saybrook-Kenyon, R.I., bypass is circulating.

The DOT and railroad administration have said a preferred alternative has not yet been chosen.

No public hearing has been held on the alternatives in New London County, although project managers met with Old Lyme officials earlier this year.

Day Staff Writer Greg Smith contributed to this report.

j.wojtas@theday.com

k.drelich@theday.com

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