Region officials bring rail bypass concerns to Washington

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

Local officials opposed to an Old Saybrook-Kenyon, R.I., rail bypass traveled to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday in the hope of laying the groundwork for a future meeting with incoming federal transportation leaders.

Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder and Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Governments Executive Director Samuel Gold visited the offices of U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, and U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., to ask for support in gaining an audience with the incoming transportation secretary or administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration.

"We believe we can make the case that this plan needs to be put on ice, because we don't believe that it is affordable, we don't believe it is the right plan for Connecticut, and we believe that Connecticut should have been made more a part of the process," Reemsnyder said in a phone interview Thursday.

The FRA had released on Dec. 16 a Tier 1 Final Environmental Impact Statement for NEC FUTURE, a long-term proposal for upgrades to the Northeast Corridor that called for the 50-mile Old Saybrook-Kenyon, R.I. bypass as part of a "preferred alternative." The FRA has said rail tracks in southeastern Connecticut face bridge chokepoints and at-grade crossings and are close to the water.

The FRA stressed at the time that the recommendation was only "one step in the process" and that the bypass would move forward only with support from Connecticut's government and "significant funding." More specific analysis of projects would come in a second-tier environmental review, according to the FRA.

The inclusion of the proposed bypass, which would start in Old Saybrook and proceed through Old Lyme and the region north of the existing tracks, was met with opposition from local officials, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Courtney, Blumenthal and Murphy issued a joint statement against it.

Courtney, who met with Gold and Reemsnyder on Wednesday and supported advocating for a meeting with incoming transportation officials, said in a phone interview Thursday that concern about the bypass is spreading to communities outside the region, including Rhode Island, as the Connecticut's Department of Transportation commissioner had predicted.

"Kudos to the Old Lyme community, as they really were ahead of the curve in terms of absorbing and studying the plan, and so it is unfolding, as predicted, that this is not going to be an Old Lyme-specific issue," Courtney said. "From a political standpoint, having more allies in different states and other parts of Connecticut is going to help in forcing a really strong second look at what came out of the Tier 1 report. I think them coming down here is another example of them leading the way and trying to form a larger circle outside of the eastern Connecticut shoreline to help the cause."

Reemsnyder brought to Washington letters from the Florence Griswold Museum and municipalities in the area to show that the rail bypass isn't an issue negatively affecting only one community but the entire region, she said.

Gold, the executive director of the Council of Governments, carried a resolution from the council's 17 communities that opposed the bypass for reasons, including that it "could significantly damage the fragile and unique ecology of the Connecticut River Estuary and irreparably harm Old Lyme's nationally registered historic district and landmarks." 

Hearing

On the same day as their visit, Blumenthal spoke against the rail bypass during the nomination hearing of Elaine Chao, President-elect Donald Trump's pick for transportation secretary.

Blumenthal said the plan "would have disastrous effects on the environment, culture and historic landmarks, quality of life" in places like Old Lyme.

"I would ask your commitment that you would view this plan and change it in response to the overwhelming outcry from people in Connecticut that the recently implemented FRA plan is simply unworkable and it is also unaffordable," Blumenthal said during his videotaped remarks during the Senate Commerce Committee hearing.

Chao responded that she and the senator have spoken about this before and she "will certainly review this very carefully, if confirmed."

Blumenthal's remarks about the bypass were made at the end of his comments to Chao that called for infrastructure upgrades to the nation's deteriorating rails, roads, and bridges and for safety improvements, including Positive Train Control, which automatically stops trains to prevent accidents.

Gregory Stroud, director of special projects at the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, cheered Blumenthal's comments about the bypass.

"For a strong rail advocate like Senator Blumenthal to raise environmental and preservation concerns to the level of cabinet hearings, is a very welcome sign given the wave of infrastructure projects heading through Connecticut over the next decades," he said by email.

There is currently a 30-day waiting period until Jan. 31 for the public to review the Tier 1 Final Environmental Impact Statement, according to the NEC FUTURE website.

The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation and SECoast sent a Dec. 21 letter to the FRA requesting a 60-day extension to the waiting period.

"We continue to receive comments, review them and use them in consideration of next steps," an FRA spokesman said in an emailed statement. "We continue to welcome any and all feedback and comments, as we have since launching this project in 2012."

Sens. Blumenthal and Murphy and U.S. Reps. John Larson, D-1st District, Courtney, Himes and Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, wrote a letter to the FRA dated Jan. 12 that requests a four-week extension.

The FRA has scheduled open houses from 4 to 7 p.m. Jan. 25 in Springfield, Mass., and Feb. 1 in Baltimore, as well as two online webinars from 7 to 8 p.m. on Feb. 13 and 16, to outline the preferred alternative. 

k.drelich@theday.com

In this Oct. 18, 2016 file photo, an Amtrak Acela train travels through Old Lyme on Friday, Dec. 16. Federal railroad regulators endorsed an ambitious and costly plan to rebuild the congested Northeast Corridor over the next 30 years. (Michael Dwyer/AP Photo)
In this Oct. 18, 2016 file photo, an Amtrak Acela train travels through Old Lyme on Friday, Dec. 16. Federal railroad regulators endorsed an ambitious and costly plan to rebuild the congested Northeast Corridor over the next 30 years. (Michael Dwyer/AP Photo)

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