Rail bypass included in 'preferred alternative' for future of Northeast Corridor

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

The Federal Railroad Administration released Friday a recommendation for future investments in the Northeast Corridor that includes an Old Saybrook to Kenyon, R.I., rail bypass, through Old Lyme and the region — an announcement that was met with strong opposition from local and state officials.

The FRA said in the news release announcing the preferred alternative for NEC FUTURE, a planning proposal for investments and capacity improvements along the 457-mile Northeast Corridor, that the recommendation represents "one step in the process."

The bypass wouldn't be able to move forward without agreement from state leadership, support from the Connecticut congressional delegation and significant funding. Local officials and residents have vocally opposed the plan.

"The FRA cannot take additional steps toward any changes to the corridor, including the portion of the corridor that runs along coastal Connecticut, without agreement from the state leadership of Connecticut, without support from the Connecticut congressional delegation and without significant funding for any work," the release states.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, both Conn., issued a joint statement Friday that they "will continue to do all we can do to remove this bypass from the final FRA plan in order to provide our communities with the certainty they deserve."

"Should the FRA continue in its pursuit of its proposed alignment, we will work to ensure that Connecticut exercises every tool at its disposal at the state and federal levels to stop any effort to move forward with this misguided plan," they said.

The proposed 50-mile Old Saybrook-Kenyon, R.I., segment would cross the Connecticut River in a tunnel under Old Saybrook and Old Lyme, according to the recommendation, which notes that the FRA is avoiding an aerial structure in the historic district of Old Lyme, due to local concerns.

The segment would then proceed in "a series of tunnels, trenches, and aerial structures parallel to I-95 through East Lyme."

"The new segment shifts northeast and continues a short distance parallel to I-395 in Waterford before crossing to the south of I-395 in tunnel and continuing east adjacent to I-95," according to the description. "The segment crosses the Thames River in New London, between the eastbound and westbound bridge spans of I-95 and continues on embankment or aerial structure parallel to I-95 through Groton and Stonington, crossing the Pawcatuck River north of the NEC into Westerly, Rhode Island."

The FRA said the rail segment will provide a redundant rail segment in southeastern Connecticut for a portion of the NEC that is most vulnerable to flooding." NEC FUTURE Program Manager Rebecca Reyes-Alicea said at a public meeting in Old Lyme in August that the tracks in the region are challenged by at-grade crossings, bridge chokepoints and their closeness to the water.

On Friday afternoon, a bipartisan group of local officials from Old Saybrook to Stonington, state legislators, U.S. Sen. Blumenthal, Rep. Courtney and state Department of Transportation Commissioner James P. Redeker stood together at a news conference at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, next to the State Capitol, to express opposition to the bypass.

Many speakers called for upgrades to the existing line, rather than building a bypass, which legislators estimated would cost $20 billion to build the tunnel portion alone.

Blumenthal, while lauding certain aspects of the FRA's recommendation, such as the Hartford-Springfield service and a commitment to rail infrastructure, called the FRA's continued adherence to the shoreline bypass concept "deeply troubling" and said the concept is "dead on arrival."

While eliminating "chokepoints" is a worthwhile goal, the proposed re-alignment imposes environmental, quality-of-life, financial and potentially historic costs, he said.

"It imposes costs that are intolerable, and I will fight it with every ounce of my energy and power in Washington, D.C.," he said. "But we know, as well, that it cannot be done without state of Connecticut, in the permits and rights of way that are necessary, so this concept or plan, just to reassure people in Connecticut, is simply not happening."

Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder said that even with a tunnel, officials still have "grave concerns" about the environment and historical preservation issues.

The mouth of the Connecticut River is one of the few in the world that is not industrialized and developed, she noted. She said residents are invested in the preservation of the environment, open space and history.

"They've given their time, their effort and their money to preserve what is best about our community," she said. "So, yes, we have been very vocal, but it's because we have something very precious to protect, and I'm glad to see my colleagues behind me supporting protecting Southeastern Connecticut from this."

State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, and state Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Lyme, announced that they were co-introducing legislation to prevent using state dollars to fund a plan that would negatively affect any Connecticut communities. Holly Cheeseman, the newly elected state representative for East Lyme and Salem, said she would support the legislation.

Courtney noted the role of the public grass-roots opposition in spurring a revision of the plan toward a tunnel, rather than an aerial structure, in the historic district of Old Lyme. But he said the tunnel raises other questions and hasn't been studied in depth, so officials would continue to "stay vigilant and use any lever that we possibly can, whether it's at the local, state or federal level."

Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons, Old Saybrook First Selectman Carl Fortuna, New London Mayor Michael Passero also voiced their opposition during the news conference.

The FRA says the proposal emphasizes bringing the corridor to a state of good repair first. In addition to the bypass in Southeastern Connecticut, the preferred alternative "integrates direct service on the Hartford/Springfield Line into the NEC" and includes recommendations such as an intercity station at the Philadelphia International Airport, replacement of the Baltimore and Potomac tunnel, and two new tracks for tunnels under the Hudson and East Rivers to Penn Station in New York, according to a document on the recommendation.

The recommendation would reduce travel from New York City to Boston by 45 minutes and take off 35 minutes from New York City to Washington, D.C., according to the FRA.

"In order to keep moving forward, we need a new vision for the Northeast Corridor — a corridor that can move an ever-increasing population safer, faster and more reliably than before," Administrator Sarah E. Feinberg said in a statement. "We need a corridor that provides more options and more trains for commuters. One that allows for seamless travel between the nation's capital and New York, and New York and Providence and Boston. A corridor that provides streamlined connections between a city's airports and its city center. And a corridor that can efficiently and reliably serve a population that is growing quickly."

The FRA will hold a 30-day "waiting period" for public review of the recommendation, according to the NEC FUTURE website. The FRA said it will consider comments and then issue a Record of Decision with its selected alternative, followed by a Service Development Plan.

In a phone interview Friday, Gregory Stroud, the executive director of SECoast, took issue with the process of releasing the decision on a Friday nine days before Christmas and the precedent that would set for future infrastructure projects.

He also expressed concerns that an aerial structure in Old Lyme could be added back in at a later stage, if a tunnel was determined to not be feasible.

At the news conference, Redeker, the DOT commissioner, said the document released Friday represents the completion of the federal government's role in outlining a vision for the Northeast Corridor, but no project can move forward without a detailed, Tier II environmental impact review in partnership with the state where the project would occur.

He said the governor has been clear from the beginning that it is the existing railroad that needs investments, long before any new undertaking.

"We have needs that are immediate in the near term, and that really is our priority, and we want to invest in that," he said, adding that better rail service in southeastern Connecticut is important to the region.

k.drelich@theday.com

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