Opposition to rail line alternative picks up speed

One of the alternatives under consideration to reroute Amtrak trains through the region would have a significant impact for some local towns, including Stonington where it would cut through the rear of Olde Mistick Village and Mystic Aquarium and a Pawcatuck golf course.

The proposed $10-$15 billion bypass from Old Saybrook to Kenyon, R.I., is a component of Alternative 1 in the Federal Railroad Administration’s proposal for future investments in the Northeast Corridor, called NEC FUTURE.

Under this option, the new rail line, which would supplement the existing tracks, would cut through Old Lyme's village area and then run roughly parallel to Interstate 95 through East Lyme. It would then shift northeast and run parallel to I-395 in Waterford before crossing to the south of I-395 in a tunnel and continue east adjacent to I-95, the NEC FUTURE proposal states.

"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 existing NEC into Westerly, Rhode Island," the proposal states.

Opposition first surfaced in Old Lyme, but has now spread to other coastal towns as residents and officials learn of the proposal.

"They're going to have a fight on their hands," said Joyce Resnikoff, the co-owner of the 43-year-old Olde Mistick Village.

She said such a rerouting would be devastating to Mystic, which thrives on tourism.

"I can travel all over the world and everyone knows Mystic," she said. "We all work very hard to support tourism here. It's big business."

On Friday, Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy called for the Federal Railroad Administration to attend a public meeting in Old Lyme.

"... We write to reiterate our call that you ensure the plan reflects the priorities of the people who live and work in the region,” the senators wrote in a letter to the FRA. “To that end, we express our strong opposition to proposals that would route a new rail line through Old Lyme, Connecticut, and we request that you attend a public forum there so that community leaders can explain how to meet our region’s rail needs while honoring historic preservation and environmental protection priorities.”

Earlier this month during a congressional hearing, Blumenthal told Amtrak Vice President Stephen Gardner that Alternative 1 was "hare-brained."

Funding questions

East Lyme First Selectman Mark Nickerson this week questioned how the federal government would be able to come up with the money to implement the NEC FUTURE rail proposal. He pointed to the need to instead fix crumbling infrastructure and widen I-95.

Nickerson said he would hope that the NEC FUTURE team would listen to feedback from local communities and work with them to determine a proper rail route.

"They should be coming to a town before releasing a decision and finalizing a plan," he said. "If they haven't done that, then they haven't done their work."

A Record of Decision and final environmental review will be issued this year, followed by a Service Development Plan next year, according to NEC FUTURE's website.

"Certainly, it's a problem for us, as much as it is for every other community," Waterford First Selectman Daniel Steward said about the proposed bypass. "We already have rail lines coming into our communities. To go in a different direction seems bizarre to me."

"I think their bigger step is to fix what they have," Steward added later.

Steward said he had previously sent a letter to NEC FUTURE that backed Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder's comments against the bypass through Old Lyme.

The Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments had sent a letter in February to the FRA that expressed concerns about the effect of the proposed bypass on land use in the region and environmental resources.

In addition, the council said it was concerned that any of the three alternative routes could result in potentially fewer train stops in New London.

Tim Hanser, a member of the board of directors for New London's City Center District, said he is aware of some of the proposed changes and concerned mostly about the lack of information that has surfaced.

"It has potential to have a regional impact but how can we take a real informed position without knowing the final location," he said.

Hanser said he is scheduling a meeting with Mayor Michael Passero and City Council President Erica Richardson to keep them abreast of any new developments.

Other alternate routes

In Connecticut, "Alternative 2" calls for tracks that would run from New Haven to Hartford and then to Providence. "Alternative 3" calls for a "second spine" of tracks along the existing tracks from Washington, D.C., to New York City. It proposes two possible routes between New York City and Hartford and then two other possible routes between Hartford and Boston.

The NEC FUTURE proposal also contemplates a "no action" alternative, according to its website.

But it's Alternative 1 that has received the most notice locally.

After crossing the Mystic River, the proposed line drops south of I-95 into what is now the rear parking lot of Olde Mistick village and the back of the aquarium. It then follows I-95 north into Pawcatuck where it veers off to the east, crosses North Anguilla Road and through the section of the Elm Ridge Golf Course that lies south of Elm Ridge Road. It will also be just north of the upscale High Ridge Drive neighborhood. The line would then cross over Liberty Street and parallel Route 78 in Westerly.

Alan Rustici, the owner of Elm Ridge Golf Course, said the route through the golf course is similar to one proposed in the past to extend Route 78 to intersect with Interstate 95.

“I’m all for expanded rail but we should use the right of ways that we already have,” he said.

Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons agreed, saying the disruption, huge cost and effort of the project would only save riders a few minutes.

He said that when the existing line was electrified for high-speed trains, the Acela cars were designed to tilt so they could navigate the curved tracks in the region without slowing down.

At that time, he said Amtrak had decided not to pursue an inland route because of the cost and complexity of the project as well as the need to take land.

He called the current proposal “ridiculous.”

He said he doubts there would be any Congressional funding for such a project in an effort to save just a few minutes of time.

Simmons renewed his call for Amtrak and the FRA to make improvements to the existing in line, such as a new bridge over the Connecticut River and installing safety measures at two crossings in Stonington.

SECoast, a nonprofit under the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, has said that emails it obtained through a Freedom of Information request indicate state Department of Transportation officials discussed in February that the FRA prefers a proposal that would include a bypass through Old Lyme.

The DOT and FRA have said the FRA has not chosen a preferred alternative. No public hearing has been held on the alternatives in New London County although project managers met with Old Lyme officials earlier this year.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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