Local officials tell senator that rail bypass would devastate neighborhoods, environmental areas, tourism

Old Lyme — Officials from several local towns told a U.S. senator Friday that a potential rail bypass through Old Lyme and the region would devastate neighborhoods, tourism and areas of historical and environmental importance.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., held a roundtable discussion Friday morning at Town Hall, during which he announced that the Federal Railroad Administration has agreed to come to the area.

Alternative 1, one of the alternatives contemplated in the Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement for NEC FUTURE, a long-term investment proposal for the Northeast Corridor, would feature a new Old Saybrook to Kenyon, R.I., rail segment.

The bypass appears to cut through the center of Old Lyme and continue through the region.

Blumenthal stressed that he supports improving rail service and investing in infrastructure.

"But the question is: how best to do it, and how to do it in a way that is consistent with, in fact even enhances, our environmental resources, our cultural, historic, geographic integrity of towns along the shoreline?" he asked.

He said a bypass that would damage the historic part of Old Lyme is "absolutely unacceptable" and a "half-baked, hare-brained notion" that should be "stopped in its tracks."

"I believe that we can find better alternatives, and I believe that those alternatives can be devised on a bipartisan basis," he said.

About 70 people listened to Friday's discussion that featured a panel of state and local officials representing Old Saybrook, Old Lyme, East Lyme, Stonington and the Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Governments.

Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder said this is not about NIMBY, "Not In My Back Yard," but "about our cultural and environmental survival in Old Lyme."

Old Saybrook First Selectman Carl Fortuna said the proposed bypass would shift the location of his town's train station, which the state and town have invested in and is considered the "economic center of town."

In East Lyme, the route would proceed through several neighborhoods, a new 400-unit apartment complex and a proposed Costco, Flanders Four Corners and possibly a recently identified site of tribal significance, East Lyme First Selectman Mark Nickerson said.

Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons said the new segment would bypass the Westerly train station and wipe out Mystic Aquarium, Olde Mistick Village and "the gateway" to Mystic, the state's top tourism destination.

Simmons instead proposed improving rail service and fixing safety issues, including re-engineering at-grade crossings.  

State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, called the bypass route "absurd." But he also relayed that state Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker has compared NEC FUTURE to a planning document that is needed to guide future rail improvements.  

Reemsnyder agreed that Redeker said if a new plan is not finalized, he wouldn't be able to implement rail improvements. She said it's important to support a plan, but not one that would cause damage. 

Several officials pointed out that having a proposed bypass "on the books" — even if it was not ultimately feasible — would cause uncertainty in communities and affect real-estate transactions and quality of life.

More than 1,800 comments on the NEC FUTURE proposal, collected during the public comment period, concerned the bypass through Old Lyme, said state Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Saybrook. 

A petition circulating in opposition to the bypass has more than 3,000 signatures, he said.

Planning and Development Services for the Town of Groton had submitted a Jan. 29 letter in favor of Alternative 1, because it "proposes new investment including a new segment and potential new station somewhere between New London and Mystic" that could be "a potential economic development opportunity."

The letter says that if the option is chosen, then affected communities should have an opportunity to provide input before the FRA develops more detailed plans.

In addition to Alternative 1, the Tier 1 EIS contemplates a "no action" alternative and two other options.

Alternative 2 encompasses a supplemental path from New Haven to Hartford, and from Hartford to Providence, according to the NEC FUTURE website.

Alternative 3 outlines two options for routing a new rail line between New York City and Hartford, and two options between Hartford and Boston.

A decision on a preferred alternative is slated to be released in the fall, according to the NEC FUTURE website.

During public comment, residents offered ideas, including enhancing rail speed by choosing a New York to Boston path through Hartford, or implementing faster, improved trains on the existing tracks.

Last month, Sens. Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, had sent a letter to request that the FRA attend a public meeting in Old Lyme "so that community leaders can explain how to meet our region's rail needs while honoring historic preservation and environmental protection priorities."

The FRA issued the following statement on Friday:

"FRA has agreed to attend a roundtable with congressional staff from the offices of Sen. Blumenthal, Sen. Murphy and Rep. Courtney; the Connecticut Department of Transportation; and local officials to discuss options for improving rail service in Connecticut and the region. We hope this will be a constructive dialogue on how to relieve the capacity constraints along the existing NEC to better serve all Connecticut residents," FRA spokesman Matthew Lehner said.

"During this process, we have heard from Old Lyme and many other Connecticut communities that expressed a variety of opinions on the future of the NEC, and FRA will take all opinions in Connecticut into account," he said.

Reemsnyder said she will work to find a venue, perhaps in a neighboring town, that could accommodate a large crowd.

Blumenthal said the meeting would take place before a decision on a preferred alternative is released. He hopes the meeting will be held at the end of August or in September.

k.drelich@theday.com

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