Strategies against rail bypass outlined during local talk

Old Lyme — Public meetings, requests for information and communication among agencies, nonprofits and residents, both locally and regionally, are among key strategies in fighting a potential rail bypass from Old Saybrook to Kenyon, R.I., according to a talk Wednesday for local organizations.

Gregory Stroud, director of special projects at the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation and a member of the nonprofit SECoast, spoke to about 90 attendees on the topic of "High Speed Rail in Old Lyme" at a luncheon held by Community Connections, a networking group for Lyme and Old Lyme organizations.

State Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Lyme, announced at the event that he and state Sen. Paul Formica, R-20th District, have introduced a resolution in the General Assembly to oppose the Old Saybrook to Kenyon, R.I., bypass.

They also introduced legislation, co-sponsored by state Sen. Heather Somers, R-18th District, to prevent the state from spending funds to change rail service, unless the affected city or town approves the change at a referendum.

The FRA released last month a final Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement for NEC FUTURE, a plan that recommends a total of about $120 billion worth of future investments in the Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C. and Boston. An Old Saybrook-Kenyon, R.I., rail segment was included in the proposal.

Stroud said the inclination may be to focus on the negative impacts of the proposed bypass, for example, on the National Historic Landmark of the Florence Griswold Museum or the Connecticut River. He said that while it's important to point those out, "the catch" is that the NEC FUTURE process is governed by the National Environmental Policy Act. He emphasized that the "P" in NEPA stands for policy, not preservation or protection.

"The reason that that's important is that, when we look at the plan, the plan is not designed to save us from bad ends," he said. "The plan is not designed to save us from unwise decisions. The plan is designed to ensure that we have a good process. That's what the Supreme Court has affirmed over and over and over again. They will not save you from a bad result, but they will protect you, or they should protect you, from a bad process."

According to the Supreme Court, a good process means agencies are not supposed to "sweep stubborn problems under the rug," he said. He said the crossing of the Thames River near the Naval Submarine Base and crossing the Connecticut River both sound like a "stubborn problem" where the environmental study falls short.

The court further affirms the plan is supposed to have sufficient details for the public to make informed decisions.

"We believe that the plan does not meet that standard at the time of decision-making," he said.

Later in his talk, Stroud encouraged attendees to think of NEPA as a "sunshine law" under which the government should provide enough information for the public to make decisions.

He said SECoast will continue to make Freedom of Information requests, while it's also important to hold meetings for the public to ask questions, demand transparency, communicate and share information, including on a regional basis all the way to Charlestown, R.I.

Stroud further announced a "significant and ongoing commitment" from the Connecticut Trust to infrastructure-related preservation issues across the state.

The FRA is holding a "waiting period" until Jan. 31 to receive comments, to which the FRA says it will not respond but will consider while formulating its Record of Decision. An extension was requested by groups and lawmakers that oppose the bypass. The FRA said it "will accept and review feedback on the NEC FUTURE Tier 1 Final EIS until the publication of the Record of Decision, which is not anticipated prior to March 1, 2017." 

First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder said several people are working on comments to the FRA from the town. The comments will include they believe that when the FRA changed from proposing an aerial structure in the draft EIS to proposing a tunnel in Old Lyme in the final EIS, the change should have triggered an amended draft EIS and another comment period.

Claudia Weicker, chair of the Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center board, said the group has been assisting Reemsnyder with analyzing environmental issues related to the plan.

"Whether it's a tunnel or a bridge, anytime you dig in the Connecticut River, you risk unleashing more than a century's worth of contaminants that have been buried in the soil from our industrial past, and that is just one small issue with respect to this," she said, adding that they have also been studying impacts, such as noise, vibration, and effects on the estuary and aquifers.

Community Connections, a networking group for organizations serving Lyme and Old Lyme to promote collaboration and community among the volunteers, holds luncheons three times a year on community topics.

k.drelich@theday.com

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