Plans for rail bypass met with staunch opposition in New London

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

New London — The Federal Railroad Administration is expected as early as this month to release a blueprint of its future plans to build a new inland high-speed rail line — a plan that has raised deep concerns and near unanimous opposition in New London and most of southeastern Connecticut.

The so-called Kenyon bypass, a stretch of proposed tracks from Old Saybrook to Kenyon, R.I., would be free of at-grade crossings and was conceived as a way to help high-speed trains take a more northerly, faster and straighter route than the coastline rail line, cutting travel time for commuters between New York and Boston.

Connecticut officials and residents have opposed the plan, often citing the damage it would do to the character of places like Old Lyme and Mystic.

In New London, the potential impact on the city's historic and economic resources have some residents and officials comparing the plan to the construction of the second span of the Gold Star Memorial Bridge and the Interstate 95 and Route 32 interchange in the 1970s that cut off the Hodges Square area, wreaking havoc on the character of an area that has yet to fully recover.

It is assumed by many that the new tracks would run parallel to I-95 and over the Gold Star Memorial Bridge, which would mean the taking of precious taxable land and overall disruption in the area. The preliminary map released by the FRA has little detail, leaving many to speculate on details of the route.

Hodges Square has for years been the focus of an economic revitalization effort including its recent inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. Members of the Hodges Square Village Association, representing businesses, residents and property owners, have worked to revitalize the area and reconnect with the city and nearby schools.

“Our neighborhood lies directly in the path of the proposed bypass,” wrote Hodges Square Village Association co-chairs Forrest Sklar and Cathi Strother, in a letter to the FRA.

“If built, the bypass is likely to include land acquisitions within our neighborhood, causing irreparable damage to our residents and businesses while further eroding the City of New London’s small tax base. It will further isolate the neighborhood, repeating the cycle of disinvestment that took place as the result of the highway construction projects in the 1970s,” they wrote.

Letters of opposition written to the FRA in January and February also raise concern about the fact that the new rail line would not have a stop in New London, decentralizing the city’s waterfront transportation hub. Preliminary plans show a station in Groton instead.

“Moving the high speed rail access to another location translates to fewer customers to downtown businesses,” Kristin Havrilla Clarke, interim director of New London Main Street, wrote in a January letter to the FRA.

“With the existing transit hub centered in downtown New London’s historic waterfront, travelers have access to high speed rail, regional and commuter rail service, regional and local bus service, interstate ferry service, local water taxi service and ample parking in a nearby parking garage,” she wrote. “Removing the high speed rail to another town means that travelers will not be able to transfer from high speed rail to make any connections at all.”

New London Mayor Michael Passero said while the plan likely would not be enacted for at least another 20 years, it still has the potential to impact economic development efforts now underway in the city, which include establishment of the $100 million national Coast Guard Museum on the city’s waterfront.

“We don’t need a cloud over our head. It would depress economic development similar to what happened in the 1970s with the I-95 expansion,” Passero said.

He was among a host of municipal leaders to voice their opposition to the plan during testimony before the state legislature’s Transportation Committee at the state Capitol in February.

'Devastating consequences'

Tim Hanser, transportation liaison for the City Center District, which represents more than 160 property owners in downtown New London, said the proposed rail line would serve to erode the tax base and reduce the district’s customer base.

Hanser said he supports a more inland route that would take the tracks through Hartford, which could achieve the travel time reductions sought between Boston and New York with less impact on “environmentally, historically and culturally significant areas."

Members of New London Landmarks and the Riverside Park Conservancy have expressed similar sentiments.

“We find it incredibly problematic, and feel it would create devastating consequences not only to New London’s environmental and economic resources, but also significant cultural and historic sites,” wrote New London Landmarks Board President Laura Nadelberg.

New London Landmarks and Thames Valley Sustainable Connections helped to spearhead a master plan to encourage economic development to help energize the Hodges Square community and pushed for projects to improve foot and bicycle traffic and slow vehicle traffic through the village.

When the highway was built with its connection to Route 32, Thames Valley Sustainable Connections President Art Costa said not only was the area severed from the rest of the city but 100 acres of land was consumed.

“So we lost whole neighborhoods. That has also been detrimental to New London’s economy as a whole. That was a pretty vibrant area,” Costa said. “There’s still a pulse and we’re trying to work to bring that back in a different way.”

Costa said in general the FRA’s plans have “no economic value for New London,” and will consume even more land from the small city of under 6 square miles.

“I think people in general are supportive of rail ... but this would be detrimental to the area and the work going on there now. It’s simply a pass through,” he said.

The FRA has said that public input would be considered in the final decision, said Gregory Stroud, head of the nonprofit SECoast organization, which has helped lead a public information campaign about the proposed route.

While he says he understands the federal government’s need to update its plans, they seem to be pushing the proposed route “despite a remarkable amount of public resistance.”

“It appears, from the best available maps they’ve given us, there would be significant impacts to the commercial districts New London depends on. We have these very small cities with very small tax bases. If you start slicing out more portions of New London’s tax base, it becomes harder to have a self-supporting city,” he said.

Stroud said the FRA was supposed to release its report earlier this year but has since indicated it would be sometime this year.

g.smith@theday.com

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