After applause, Northeast Corridor decision: Act II

The cast of thousands who successfully convinced the Federal Railroad Administration there must be better ways to fix the Northeast Corridor than running track through some of this region's most historic and beautiful areas should give themselves a round of applause. Then it is time to get right back to work and Act II. This is just intermission.

The first Act had plenty of drama, in fact, too much. The FRA proposal got as far as "final plan" status before being derailed.

But when the FRA on July 12 issued its formal Record of Decision, including the eastern Connecticut and southern Rhode Island parts of the Washington-to-Boston rail corridor, gone was the suggested route that had united our region in opposition. That now-deleted plan had the high-speed rail crossing the Connecticut River with a landing in the center of Old Lyme's historic district, then wending inland, away from the New London transportation hub but right through Olde Mistick Village and the Mystic Aquarium, rejoining the old route after bisecting tribal land in Rhode Island.

That the FRA plan could be stopped in its tracks is proof that grassroots engagement works. It is a tribute to people like Greg Stroud of Old Lyme, a historian who turned into a community organizer. Once people realized what might befall their communities, they rallied in opposition and the elected leaders joined their ranks.  While opposition from both Connecticut's U.S. senators and its members of Congress, Gov. Malloy and municipal officials proved critical, it was the outcry of private citizens, joined by environmentalists, preservationists, business and economic groups — and seemingly the whole town of Old Lyme — that got things started.

Stroud recently sat down with the editorial board to discuss lessons learned and where things now stand.

This was a plan chockful of questionable ideas, using maps no one but the FRA has. Going forward, the public needs to be included from the start in discussing alternatives. That is one lesson learned.

It could prove a demanding task to unite the varied interests to get behind a new plan, rather than against one. Sometime fairly soon the federal government will issue a Service Development Plan. It is expected to call for the state to take the lead in determining how to upgrade the current railway along the shoreline for improved capacity, resiliency and safety, knowing seas are rising and weather-related  disasters a growing threat.

Federal authorities are challenging the state to do all that while shaving a significant number of minutes from the time it takes a high-speed train to get from the Connecticut River to Boston.

While the plan now rejected was ill-conceived, there are genuine economic benefits to high-speed rail. The serpentine rail bed laid out in the 19th century; the threat from rising seas; precious cultural and environmental assets; the appetite for commuter rail; and the competing interests of the marine industry for bridge closures, all present challenges to achieving it.

The Malloy administration has taken a stance that the primary goal is upgrading service, with the New Haven to Springfield line perhaps helping to contribute both resiliency and capacity. An earlier option to completely reroute high speed rail that far inland, which frightened economic planners along the shore, could resurface. But this is a multi-year, probably multi-decade project that has already been on the FRA agenda for years. Political leaders will come and go and come and go before this estimated $135 billion project takes final shape.

In the meanwhile, Connecticut and Rhode Island must work as members of the Northeast Corridor community, which includes the District of Columbia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts. Resistance has come mostly from this region and its statewide allies; the Record of Decision kept earlier proposed changes in the other states, as well as in Fairfield and New Haven Counties.

Some of those readying for the next phase believe that Connecticut and Rhode Island stakeholders can be the ones to show how large-scale infrastructure projects can incorporate public opinion and transparency.

The commissioner of Connecticut's Department of Transportation, James Redeker, serves as co-chair of the Northeast Corridor Commission. We don't know what leadership and planning model will emerge after the Service Development Plan signals the start of a capacity study. It seems that the DOT commissioner and his successors in that office would have a critical role. Towns and key advocates for the state's economy and its environment should insist on an open process that includes them in all conversations.

Opponents made their case by uniting to save treasured places that must not be lost. Now they will have to become proponents of what can and must be gained if this state and its neighbors are to thrive.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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