'This is not about one town'; residents urged to oppose rail plan

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

Old Lyme — U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal on Thursday urged townspeople and activists from as far away as Kenyon, R.I., to oppose a Federal Railroad Administration plan to run a high-speed rail bypass through the region that he said could affect local real estate values.

Blumenthal, speaking Thursday afternoon in Town Hall before a packed room of more than 100 people, said he doesn't oppose high-speed rail but believes a better plan right now would be to make improvements to the system currently in place.

"The sooner we stop the bypass, the better we are," he said. "Rail is welcome, but in the right place on the right route."

Residents who made comments during the meeting said they were fearful the bypass, running underground through Old Lyme and Old Saybrook, would interfere with the town's cultural attractions such as the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts, its historic district and its commercial center.

They're also worried about whether they would be able to sell their houses if there were a possibility the rail project would go through their property.

"This is not about one town," Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder said. "It's about all the things we hold dear in our communities and have supported and defended for generations."

Blumenthal, a Democrat, questioned the release of the railroad administration's plan just before Christmas.

"They're hoping we'll forget about this issue during the holidays," he said.

He urged residents to write to the railroad administration requesting an extension of the approximately 30-day period for comments on the bypass proposal. They also, of course, should voice their opposition to the project up to the Jan. 31 deadline, he added.

"There is still plenty of time for our voices to be heard," he said.

State Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Lyme, said he is crafting legislation and a resolution to oppose the bypass in the General Assembly next session.

Daniel Mackay, executive director for the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, said his organization is calling for the railroad administration to put the brakes on the plan by extending the deadline for comments on the project's final environmental impact statement.

Blumenthal said there are a variety of alternatives to the current preferred route for high-speed rail between New York and Boston, but many of them would require acquisition of new property or even the use of eminent domain. He said residents would be doing the state and the nation a favor by opposing the rail plan, saying it is a test case for investing in infrastructure projects that are done in a safe way rather than a destructive way.

Reemsnyder said the proposal already has affected sales of homes in the town's historic district.

"That's an economic damage to us already," she said. "We cannot sustain that."

The railroad administration said the so-called NEC FUTURE plan running from Old Saybrook to Kenyon, R.I., would move forward only if the state agrees to the plan. So far, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Commissioner James P. Redeker of the state Department of Transportation have announced their opposition, as have U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and local legislators including state Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, and state Reps. Art Linares, R-Westbrook, and Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme.

The 50-mile project, costing tens of billions of dollars, would involve building a tunnel between Old Saybrook and Old Lyme. The tunnel was substituted for a bridge because of local concerns previously expressed about Old Lyme's historic district.

The exact placement of the project is unclear because the route has not been finalized. Instead, the railroad administration mentions only that "tunnels, trenches, and aerial structures" would run "parallel to I-95 through East Lyme" before shifting northward toward I-395 in Waterford, running under the highway in a tunnel before continuing near I-95 and connecting with current rail setups running to Westerly.

Improvements are expected to cut travel times from Boston to New York City by 45 minutes. But Blumenthal, who said he supports speedier service, said this plan is no more palatable than a previous version that was sprung on the region earlier this year.

"I put this project in the category of the bridge to nowhere," Blumenthal said.

l.howard@theday.com

MORE INFORMATION

Response period: Ends Jan. 31

Note: This is not a formal comment period, but FRA will consider feedback and could identify an alternative plan.

To respond: email info@necfuture.com">info@necfuture.com; send letters to U.S. DOT Federal Railroad Administration, One Bowling Green, Suite 429, New York, N.Y., 10004.

Source: U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney's office

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