Rail bypass opponents gather in Mystic

Mystic — The head of the group opposing a high-speed rail bypass through the region told a group of about 25 business leaders and officials Tuesday afternoon that the Federal Railroad Administration didn’t make a mistake when it proposed to route the line through property where Olde Mistick Village and Mystic Aquarium now sit.

While some in the region find it hard to believe the FRA would put a rail line through two major tourist attractions, Gregory Stroud, the executive director of SEcoast, warned those gathered in an Olde Mistick Village beer garden that federal rail officials want to place the line through Mystic because the area already is affected by Interstate 95.

He said they feel there would be less damage by putting it in Mystic.

He also warned that while the entire project may never come to fruition, the FRA sees it as a way to push through smaller projects such as utility lines, highway expansion, cellphone towers and other improvements.

Stroud added that while some people in the region think that FRA officials in Washington mistakenly proposed the Mystic route because they are unfamiliar with the region, he said “they know exactly what would happen by running this line,” as some were involved in the controversial electrification project of Amtrak lines through the region 20 years ago.

In that case, Amtrak and FRA officials told residents worried about the impact on the shoreline landscape that wires would be strung by green poles far apart that would blend into the landscape and showed pictures of ones in Sweden that they would resemble.

Instead, metal catenary systems that resemble those in New Haven and Bridgeport were built close together.

In addition, rail officials proposed a series of overpasses and tunnels in Stonington and closing off access to Walker’s Dock and Elihu Island. Those plans were discarded after massive opposition from Stonington officials and residents.

Stroud urged those in attendance at the event, organized by the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce at the Jealous Monk, to mount a similar effort against the bypass.

“Now is the time to fight this,” he said, asking for support for his group’s plans for legal action.

While he declined to discuss his group’s specific strategy, he said one will be to seek out the support of environmental groups that oppose the bypass.

“There’s not been a strong voice in the press yet from environmental groups,” he said. “I encourage everyone with environmental connections to bring the maps (of the bypass) to these groups. We believe the mouth of the Connecticut River and the marshes and estuaries of southeastern Connecticut will be affected."

A Tier 1 draft Environmental Impact Statement for NEC FUTURE, a proposal for long-term investments in the Northeast Corridor, considers a “no action” alternative and three alternatives, including Alternative 1, which features an Old Saybrook-Kenyon, R.I., bypass, which also cuts through Old Lyme.

Last month, residents packed a public meeting held with federal rail officials in Old Lyme to go over concerns about the bypass plan.

The FRA has stressed that it has not yet finalized a recommendation for a preferred alternative.

Stroud said his group also is looking at the fight as a legal issue.

“We’ve discussed this plan with the best lawyers in Washington and New York, and they see flaws in it,” he said.

Stroud and the group also discussed the possibility that property values will be affected because of uncertainty about whether the bypass will someday be built.

“There’s no white knight that’s going to come in and stop this for us. We’re the white knight in this room,” Stroud said, urging the group to spread the word about the bypass impact.

First Selectman Rob Simmons said information is being withheld about the project, something that is not new with rail proposals.

He said Stonington historical and environmental groups were left out of a list of groups the FRA says it is consulting with on the bypass plan.

“We need to kill this in the cradle and make them live up to their past promises,” he said.

Instead of a massive new rail line project, Simmons reiterated his call for the FRA and Amtrak to fix bridges, update trains so they can travel faster and improve safety at crossings.

“They should fix what we have rather than create a nightmare along our shoreline towns,” Simmons said.

State Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, warned the group that “if we don’t step forward and actively point out how inconsistent with the community these plans are, they begin to develop a life of their own.”

Lisa Konicki, the executive director of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce, urged those at Tuesday’s meeting to talk to all of the group’s members about the impact of the proposed project, which includes bypassing the Westerly train station.

“We need to say, 'Wake up, people, this affects all of you,'” she said.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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