Residents pack public meeting with Federal Railroad Administration
Old Lyme — More than 500 residents packed the Lyme-Old Lyme High School auditorium Wednesday afternoon, as local and state officials again voiced their opposition to a potential rail route through the center of Old Lyme, this time directly to Federal Railroad Administration officials.
"You know the old saying 'a picture is worth a thousand words'? The most important picture in this room today is not behind me, it is ahead of me," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn, said, noting the large crowd of attendees seated in front of him during the public meeting.
"I hope the FRA brings that picture back to Washington, D.C., because I know I certainly will," he said.
The FRA had agreed to attend a public meeting in Old Lyme, which Sens. Chris Murphy and Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, had requested so local officials could discuss how to serve the region's rail needs while preserving its history and environment.
One alternative considered in the Tier 1 draft environmental impact statement for NEC FUTURE, the FRA's long-term investment proposal for the Northeast Corridor, features a potential Old Saybrook-Kenyon, R.I., bypass cutting through the historic district of Old Lyme and traveling through the region.
More than 1,800 comments against the bypass through Old Lyme were submitted during the public comment period for NEC FUTURE, which ended in mid-February.
Wednesday's meeting, which comes prior to an official announcement on the FRA's preferred alternative, was a roundtable discussion with state Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker, Blumenthal, Courtney and state and local officials representing communities from Old Saybrook to Stonington.
Courtney juxtaposed the "long list" of upgrades that are needed along the Northeast Corridor — including work to the Connecticut River Railroad Bridge between Old Saybrook and Old Lyme — to NEC FUTURE.
Proposals contemplated for NEC FUTURE would cost between $68 billion and hundreds of billions of dollars, "without any mechanism to finance it or pay for it," he said.
Yet, he pointed out that a government report with a line on the map through communities would have an impact.
"We're talking about something that is so contingent on so many almost hard-to-imagine variables of financing, yet we're creating a product that still can have an impact in terms of the real-estate market and people's future confidence in a series of communities that are extremely precious to all of us," Courtney said, adding that the communities have been loyal supporters of Amtrak.
Blumenthal stressed the importance of rail investments, "but it has to be sensitive to the fundamental values and quality of life and environmental interests that are at stake."
"There has got to be a better way to do it than what we have seen so far," he said. "In effect, building tracks or a tunnel to nowhere, we learned, will never get done."
"In fact, the route that has been proposed that would cut through communities like Old Lyme simply is unfeasible and unworkable and unnecessary, and the resources are not going to be appropriated," he said.
Blumenthal said he would support efforts to enforce laws "that would block this kind of destructive impact on our community."
Rebecca Reyes-Alicea, program manager for NEC FUTURE, said Wednesday's meeting likely "takes the cake for the largest public meeting" during the NEC FUTURE process.
She said the FRA will recommend a preferred alternative in the early fall, and issue a final record of decision toward the end of the year.
NEC FUTURE is intended to define a "future vision" for the Northeast Corridor and address capacity issues as the region grows.
Reyes-Alicea said achieving a "state of good repair" along the Northeast Corridor is critical, and the FRA would pursue a "phased approach" to implementing chosen recommendations.
The Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement is a "broad look" along the entire 457-mile corridor, while the second "tier" would involved a more detailed analysis of specific projects, she said.
The public submitted a list of questions prior to the meeting.
Officials asked the questions, ranging from if the FRA would release more detailed maps to concerns about the environmental review process.
Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder also read aloud a request from a local group of volunteer experts to collaborate with the FRA on coming up with an alternative to the bypass.
Blumenthal said he would submit the remaining unaddressed questions to the FRA.
During the meeting, Reyes-Alicea confirmed that the FRA has committed to avoid an aerial structure through the historic district of Old Lyme.
During her presentation, Reyes-Alicea noted bridge "chokepoints," 11 at-grade crossings and the proximity of the existing tracks to the water in Connecticut.
Waterford First Selectman Daniel Steward pointed out that a road in his community could be raised to eliminate an at-grade rail crossing — which was the site of a fatal accident in 2005 — in lieu of changing the rail line.
Rather than create a whole new route through communities, Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons urged the FRA to make safety improvements to at-grade crossings and upgrade trains.
Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Saybrook, compared the potential bypass to a "dark cloud" hovering over the community.
New London City Mayor Michael Passero said there would be no way to reroute rail through New London, "without destroying our little city."
While Old Saybrook First Selectman Carl Fortuna requested more information about how the bypass would affect Old Saybrook, he stressed that "we stand with Old Lyme."
Reyes-Alicea said that listening to the comments is part of the process for NEC FUTURE.
In addition to Alternative 1, NEC FUTURE is contemplating two other alternatives and a "no action" alternative.
Alternative 2 proposes an additional rail route that would run from New Haven to Hartford, and then from Hartford to Providence, according to the NEC FUTURE website.
Alternative 3 proposes two possible routes for a new rail line between New York City and Hartford, and two possible routes between Hartford and Boston.
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