Shore Line East expansion slips off the rails

When I saw Connecticut Transportation Commissioner Joseph Marie suited up Tuesday morning in a fluorescent yellow DOT work jacket, waiting trackside for the departure of the inaugural 5:52 a.m. Shore Line East train out of New London, I thought of George Bush and his flight suit appearance aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln.

Bush took to the flight deck of the aircraft carrier in 2003 to declare, quite prematurely, as it turned out, "Mission Accomplished" in the war in Iraq.

Marie was in town Tuesday to herald the expansion of Shore Line East commuter service, but it looks like the mission of creating full commuter rail service for New London is a long way from being accomplished.

Indeed, Marie had some sobering words for rail advocates hoping that Tuesday's addition of one new weekday Shore Line East roundtrip in and out of New London would be the start of an expansion that would eventually bring here the same number of trains that stop in Old Saybrook.

Marie said he doesn't see on the horizon any more new Shoreline East trains for New London than the four or five additional roundtrips the state plans to start in the spring.

That means New London would end up with substantially less service than Old Saybrook, where there are 11 weekday roundtrips and eight on the weekends.

And that certainly undermines the premise of the local train advocates, the Shoreline East Coalition, who have organized around the mantra: One More Stop.

Marie seemed to suggest Tuesday that half a stop, at best, is more like it.

"The notion that we could extend every train from Old Saybrook is technically not feasible," Marie said. "I don't know where those expectations came from."

Maybe the expectations came from the commissioner himself.

A coalition member gave me copy Tuesday afternoon of a letter Marie wrote to Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Gina McCarthy in November 2008, explaining plans to extend Old Saybrook trains to New London "as mandated" by legislation.

"The Phase 2 service would extend 34 existing SLE trains beyond Old Saybrook to New London," Marie wrote then. "The department plans to introduce Phase 2 service in the spring of 2009."

Indeed, there is an attached schedule, with a timetable for full service to New London, all the same trains that end at Old Saybrook.

Can you backpedal a train? The commissioner sure is trying.

The local advocates from the Shore Line East Coalition might have unreasonable expectations, Marie told me Tuesday, but lawmakers don't.

He said he's met with members of the region's legislative delegation and they are aware that the state's plans for expanding train service stop with the four to five new round trips that might be added in the spring.

Marie blames the difficulties in expanding New London service on a variety of factors, including conflicts with Amtrak trains, the number of tracks and agreements with the state Department of Environmental Protection.

But the reality is that the Old-Saybrook-to-New-Haven piece of the route has the same number of tracks and the same number of passing Amtrak trains as the New-London-to-Old-Saybrook piece.

The only substantial difference are the railroad bridges that have to open and close between here and Old Saybrook, and opposition by the Connecticut Marine Trades Association to any more times when those openings can't occur.

Tuesday's debut of one additional train from New London is technically a promise met by Gov. Jodi Rell, who can say she has indeed expanded Shore Line East service out of New London.

But it is no less a gimmick than suiting up for a photo opportunity on an aircraft carrier, declaring significant combat operations over, when there is obviously so much more work left to be done, to create viable, full-schedule commuter service to New London.

The Shore Line East Coalition couldn't be more broadly representative, including a range of city and regional business and community groups.

Even at the early hour of Tuesday's first train, the group sent an enthusiastic delegation of well wishers to see it off, including Deputy Mayor Adam Sprecace, City Manager Martin Berliner and Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut Downtown Development Coordinator Frank McLaughlin.

Union Station owner Todd O'Donnell passed around a box of doughnuts.

I don't think local train advocates should expect to get much more from Gov. Rell, in the waning days of her administration, since she seems incapable of standing up to the marine trades lobby.

But, from what Marie told me Tuesday, local lawmakers, many of whom do plan to run again for office, could use a little more education about what full-scale commuter rail service could do for the city and region and what needs to be done to get there.

Each one of them ought to be asked to take a One More Stop pledge, and voters should take note if they continue to be satisfied with a promise of just half a stop.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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