Lawmakers ask agency to listen to concerns before finalizing rail plan

Proposed alternate Northeast Corridor rail line in southeastern Connecticut.

With the Federal Railroad Administration expected to finalize its recommendation for upgrades to the Northeast Corridor as early as Wednesday, Connecticut's U.S. senators and Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, pressed the FRA to listen to residents' objections to a proposed rail line between Old Saybrook and Kenyon, R.I.

The lawmakers highlighted in letters to the FRA on Tuesday the opposition to the proposed bypass in Southeastern Connecticut, as well as to a proposed new route through several communities in Fairfield County.

The FRA said it will consider comments on its recommended plan for future upgrades to the Washington, D.C., to Boston rail corridor until it issues a final record of decision. Each project recommended would then "require additional project-level planning work, including environmental analysis and engineering" and "significant funding and community partnership" to move forward, the FRA has said.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Courtney wrote in a letter to FRA Executive Director Patrick Warren that the Old Saybrook-Kenyon, R.I., bypass "would cause massive disturbance to the lives and livelihoods of tens of thousands of residents who now live in the proposed route's path."

"It would decimate the unique charm and historic character of several centuries-old towns like Old Lyme. It would disrupt major job centers and tourist attractions like the aquarium and historic seaport in Mystic," they wrote. "It would result in significantly reduced rail service to several towns and cities on the current line like New London, rendering as out of the way important attractions like the Thames River Heritage Park ... It would harm the sensitive ecological treasure of the Connecticut River Estuary."

They added that the proposal already is affecting property values in Connecticut.

Blumenthal said in a phone interview Tuesday that the letter expresses the comments the lawmakers have received from residents that the bypass proposal is completely misguided and the FRA needs to go back to the drawing board for this part of the plan.

"We support a high-speed rail concept for the Northeast Corridor and, of course, better and more reliable, safer, resilient rail, but not through a route that will cost tens of billions of dollars and destroy vital environmental, cultural and historic values," he said.

He added that he is hopeful that the new administration will be more receptive to their comments or at least recognize that the money for this bypass will never be available.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., also wrote a letter to the FRA that he supports rail investment but has concerns over the potential impacts of proposed bypasses in southwestern and southeastern Connecticut.

"More than residents of any other state, Connecticut residents have been intensely interested in the work of NEC FUTURE," he wrote. "My constituents provided over half of all of the comments submitted during an earlier comment period. Underlying the intense interest is both a strong belief in the transformative potential of rail investment in the region and a fear that the current iteration of NEC FUTURE’s plan will adversely affect the lives of Connecticut shoreline residents, particularly in the towns affected by the proposed bypass routes outlined in the [Final Environmental Impact Statement]."

The lawmakers included in their letters praise for some aspects of the FRA's plan, such as upgrades to the Hartford line.

In the region on Tuesday, the Board of Directors of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut adopted a resolution requesting that the FRA remove the bypass from its plan to "avoid further erosion to real estate values in the vicinity of the proposed track."

The resolution states that the board supports upgrades to the existing railroad bed, but has "major concern with the process applied to developing" the bypass. The plan "will have a detrimental impact on culturally and historically significant communities that the region relies on for employment sustainability and economic growth."

k.drelich@theday.com

Lauren Girasoli of Old Lyme carries a sign that states
Lauren Girasoli of Old Lyme carries a sign that states "Don't Track on Me" as over one hundred people gather at Olde Mistick Village on Feb. 12, 2017, to rally against the proposed Old Saybrook to Kenyon, R.I., high-speed rail bypass. (Tim Cook/The Day)

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