Rail service to Westerly endorsed by state panel

The Connecticut Public Transportation Commission issued a report Monday recommending extension of Shore Line East rail service to Mystic and Westerly as soon as possible.

"Planning to provide for a very basic level of service to Westerly should begin, even if it only provides three or four connections per day," the 2015 annual report said.

The commission acknowledged "an impressive turnout of advocates" for Shore Line East service from New London eastward when it held a hearing in Norwich last year. At least a minimal level of service to Westerly should be accomplished in spite of the state Department of Transportation's main goal of enhancing rail service to New Haven, Hartford and Springfield, the report said.

State Rep. Aundre Bumgardner hailed the commission's recommendation, saying rail service to Westerly will close the last transportation gap along the Northeast rail corridor.

"Having that commuter-rail gap closing will truly increase the economic vitality of southeastern Connecticut," Bumgardner, R-Groton, a member of the legislature's Transportation Committee, said in a phone interview.

He said rail service to Mystic would be a benefit to those commuting to New Haven and New York City, potentially reducing traffic along the busy Interstate 95 corridor. Bumgardner said the Transportation Committee held hearings last year in which locals called for extended rail service to Westerly.

"It's a start," he said, "especially since our state is in a pinch right now financially."

Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons, a longtime advocate of extended Shore Line East service, called the commission's recommendation a step in the right direction.

"The village of Mystic is the No. 1 tourist attraction in the state of Connecticut," Simmons said. "This is the final piece of the puzzle."

Among those who spoke out in favor of extended Shore Line East Service at the Transportation Commission hearing in Norwich was Stephen Bessette, a former Stonington selectman, who noted that within four days of setting up a Facebook account to support rail service to Mystic the page had 300 "likes."

"Some previous planning for service to Westerly has occurred between ConnDOT and the State of Rhode Island and such service is envisioned in both the State Rail Plan and Governor Malloy's Let's Go CT initiative," the report said.

Other recommendations in the report are to:

-- Approve a constitutional amendment to create lockbox protections to avoid legislative raids on the state's Special Transportation Fund to pay for non-transportation programs and services.

-- Endorse a universal transit pass in the state similar to those seen in Philadelphia and Atlanta that would allow seamless travel throughout Connecticut.

-- Urge better communication methods, such as posting of schedules at bus shelters and better track and arrival information at train stations.

-- Expand a taxi voucher program for the elderly and disabled as well as increased access to taxis in places with lower population densities.

-- Boost the idea of a bus transit connection to a commercial area on the Derby-Ansonia border.

The report also mentioned the public's desire for improved bus service between various transportation regions, including the need for more connections from Willimantic and Colchester to Norwich.

The transportation commission is an advisory board that submits recommendations annually to the governor, General Assembly and commissioner of transportation. Hearings last year were held in Norwich, Plainville, Hamden, Derby, Old Saybrook, Windsor Locks and Stamford.

l.howard@theday.com

Twitter: @KingstonLeeHow 

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