UPDATED: FRA drops rail bypass plan that was opposed locally

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

The Federal Railroad Administration has removed a controversial rail bypass between Old Saybrook and Kenyon, R.I., from its recommended plan for future investments in the Northeast Corridor.

The FRA announced in a briefing Wednesday that it is instead recommending that Connecticut and Rhode Island, along with the federal agency, conduct a study on how to address rail capacity issues and evaluate infrastructure improvements between New Haven and Providence.

In releasing its Record of Decision that will guide long-term investments in the Northeast Corridor, the FRA said its selected alternative includes bringing the rail line between New Haven and Providence to a "state of good repair."

The FRA had said the proposed bypass would improve capacity for the Northeast Corridor, but residents and officials in southeastern Connecticut had raised objections to the proposed tracks that would run inland between Old Saybrook and Kenyon, R.I., including through Old Lyme's village center and Mystic. They expressed concerns over historical, cultural and economic impacts to the communities and the environmental consequences of a potential Connecticut River tunnel. 

The FRA released in December a Tier I Final Environmental Impact Statement that called for the proposed bypass as among the overall recommended improvements, through the year 2040, for the rail network between Washington, D.C., and Boston. The FRA said then it would finalize a plan in the Record of Decision and then issue a Service Development Plan. Any proposals would require funding and state support to move forward.

The selected alternative released in the Record of Decision on Wednesday prioritizes bringing to a "state of good repair" the entire 457-mile corridor, Rebecca Reyes-Alicea of the FRA said during the briefing. It further calls for capacity and service improvements between Washington, D.C., and New Haven, and between Providence and Boston, and a capacity planning study between New Haven and Providence. The FRA's proposal further says that the replacement of the Connecticut River Bridge between Old Lyme and Old Saybrook should be included as part of the efforts to modernize the Northeast Corridor.

Between New Haven and Providence, the FRA "found a fundamental need to expand capacity, improve performance and increase resiliency, but due to physical constraints in geography of the area, we found that largely expanding within or along the existing NEC right of way just is not possible," Reyes-Alicea said. "Additionally, there was a lack of consensus regarding the correct rail solution in that portion of the corridor."

A timeline for the study has not yet been defined.

The study of potential future routes in the area between New Haven and Providence would be led by the states, Marc Willis, a spokesman for the FRA, said by phone. "We want this to be more in the states' hands to figure out what they want and need and what is best for them," he said.

The FRA's announcement was applauded Wednesday by officials representing the region.

“The welcome demise of the misguided and poorly conceived plan to realign railway tracks through communities across the southeastern Connecticut shoreline is a testament to the (grass-roots) effort and perseverance of local residents and town leaders,” U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said in a statement. “From the start, the creation of a new bypass was a proposal untethered from reality. Whether it was the plan’s exorbitant cost without a funding source, the disruption 'Kenyon Bypass' would cause from Old Lyme to New London to Stonington, the mere existence of this map cast a cloud of uncertainty and doubt across a region with a history and environment as rich and valuable as any place in our nation. Throughout the FRA’s process of developing this plan, I have been clear that no proposal should move forward without the advice and consent of the state of Connecticut and of our shoreline communities."

The office of U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in a news release that while the plan no longer recommends the Old Saybrook-Kenyon, R.I. bypass, it "does continue to call for 'further study' into the possibility."

“This final plan is a victory for common sense and for Connecticut, rightly abandoning the half-baked and hare-brained scheme to reroute Amtrak right through its historic downtown," Blumenthal said in the statement. "There is no need for further study here — not a single penny nor minute of effort need be spent to conclude this bypass is a non-starter. This outcome is a direct result of the sustained outpouring of well-founded public opposition from residents."

He added by phone that the announcement reflects that grass-roots activism and environmental advocacy can make a real difference.

"Old Lyme was the 'Little Engine That Could,'" he said. "Everybody discounted it. The FRA said it wouldn't be pressured or pushed, but Old Lyme and everybody on its side continued to move forward and it has produced this victory."

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy commended the FRA's decision and encouraged Congress to invest in the Northeast Corridor.

“The Federal Railroad Administration has developed a vision for the future of the Northeast Corridor and issued a decision that provides a path forward for expanding capacity and improving performance of the existing railroad,” he said in a statement. “They have responded directly to requests made by the State of Connecticut to enable significant and necessary investments to address an estimated $38 billion backlog in state-of-good-repair assets, and we thank them for their consideration of our concerns.”

DOT Commissioner James P. Redeker said in a statement that the decision "conforms to Connecticut’s view that investments in a state of good repair are the necessary foundation for longer term high speed rail investment. We look forward to a continued strong partnership the FRA and other concerned constituencies as investments are made and future service plans are developed."

Redeker said by phone that the decision supports a "practical, incremental strategy" to improve service in Connecticut and into Rhode Island and postpones major, long-term looks at capacity.

Local, state officials

Bonnie Reemsnyder, the first selectwoman of Old Lyme, where opposition to the bypass began in the region, said she was thrilled with the announcement. She said that the area "spoke with one loud voice," including the first selectmen and mayors, Sens. Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Courtney, Malloy, Redeker and state representatives and senators.

"This is a wonderful day for Old Lyme and for Southeastern Connecticut," she said. "The Record of Decision is exactly what we were hoping for, but we were really unsure if it could come out in our favor."

State Sens. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, Heather Somers, R-Groton, and Art Linares, R-Westbrook, along with state Reps. Devin Carney, R-Old Saybrook, Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, and Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, all issued statements applauding the decision.

"This is excellent news for our local communities," Formica said. "The people of Southeastern Connecticut spoke up and made their voices heard loud and clear that this rail bypass would have deeply disrupted and hurt our communities. Learning that the federal government has withdrawn this plan in favor of other improvements is a testament to what we can accomplish when we join our voices together. I also want to thank Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder and Old Lyme resident Greg Stroud for their relentless efforts to share information and bring people together to share our concerns."

“This fight has been going on for over a year and a half and I am thrilled that the thousands of voices within the 23rd District and beyond were heard loud and clear,” Carney said.

"While expanding capacity to our rail line is important it should not be done at the expense of our peaceful shoreline towns and the families and businesses that reside in them," Somers said.

“It is important to so many Waterford residents, including myself, that we preserve the natural ecosystems along our shoreline for the benefit of the environment, as well as for future generations to enjoy,” McCarty said. “We should continue to focus on improving and repairing existing transportation infrastructure for our commuters, but it is not the right time to impose a new railway on our community.”

"Thank you to all those residents who spoke out against this plan and advocated for alternative improvements to our rail system. We were heard!” Cheeseman said.

"While we can all appreciate the desire to enhance transportation throughout our state, the Federal Railroad Administration’s initial proposal was deeply flawed and would have caused significant damage to local communities and economies throughout southeastern Connecticut,” Linares said.

Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons, a vocal critic of the bypass, said Wednesday he was gratified to learn of its apparent demise.

"This was a half-baked idea that needed to go away. But it doesn't mean it's gone away forever," he cautioned.

The proposed rail line would have bypassed the Mystic train station, cut through the rear of Olde Mistick Village and the Mystic Aquarium and the Elm Ridge Golf Course and also bypassed the Westerly train station, which is used by Stonington residents.

Simmons said the bypass would not have significantly decreased travel time along the Northeast corridor, was hugely expensive, also bypassed the busy New London train station and would have created major congestion along the section of Interstate 95 in town during construction, hurting tourism.

"It would have destroyed the quality of life and character of the community," he said.

Instead, Simmons renewed his call for the FRA and Amtrak to focus on improvements such as utilizing European tilt technology that allows trains to travel at high speed on old tracks, make safety improvements at two crossings in town and undertake other service upgrades.

Gregory Stroud, director of special projects for the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation and co-founder of SECoast, said "great bipartisan leadership" on the state and federal level from Sen. Blumenthal, Congressman Courtney, state Sen. Formica, and state Rep. Carney, produced positive results.

"We've taken a bad precedent for transportation planning, and established a good one," he said by email. "But let's be clear: this issue is far from over, and we urge the Federal Railroad Administration moving forward to adopt a process which genuinely engages the communities of Southeastern Connecticut and Southern Rhode Island as we develop better solutions for the Northeast Corridor."

East Lyme First Selectman Mark Nickerson called the announcement "a victory for the people of Southeastern Connecticut."

"A lot of people put a lot of work into making sure Washington decision-makers were equipped with all the information, and it's refreshing to know that they listened," he said.

Waterford First Selectman Daniel Steward also said by phone that he was pleased that the FRA finally listened to the public's concerns about the bypass and said this has been a "long time coming." He added that the communities are in a good position to say they don't want the bypass in the area, but will continue to be watchful.

Claudia Weicker, chair of the Connecticut Audubon Society’s Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center, called the decision "a considerable victory for conservation and environmental protection in southeastern Connecticut."

Andrew W. Minikowski, legal fellow for Connecticut Fund for the Environment, said in a statement that organization looked forward to "the Administration’s collaboration with local governments to identify ways to bring high speed rail to Southeastern Connecticut while preserving ecological integrity and communities in the region.”

New London Mayor Michael Passero said the plan from the start had unanimous opposition from the municipalities in southeastern Connecticut.

“I think they really heard us. It was not workable for our communities,” Passero told a reporter by phone. “Each of our communities would have different impacts. New London already has such a small footprint and commercial base. This was going to further erode a portion of our city. We didn’t need this cloud hanging over our heads.”

 Day Staff Writers Greg Smith and Joe Wojtas contributed to this report.

k.drelich@theday.com

READER COMMENTS

Loading comments...
Hide Comments