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Lawmakers suggest new train system for eastern Connecticut

The track is already in the ground.

That's the best argument I've heard for the idea of an exciting new passenger train system for eastern Connecticut that is part of a study bill now being considered in the General Assembly.

The passenger train expansion idea has the potential to be one of the most ambitious, transformative programs for the region I've seen in a very long time, with all kinds of environmental, economic development and strategic planning benefits.

Best of all, it's infrastructure improvement on a grand scale with much of what's needed already in place. The miles and miles of train track, after all, is in the ground.

It could be a fast-track, shovel-ready project with a relatively modest price tag, compared to more ambitious plans to get cars off the road and improve air quality.

Legislative bodies in the central towns have all signed on and endorsed the concept. Pfizer and Electric Boat also have signaled support for a system that would not only carry many of their employees for commuting but also make easy rail business connections between Groton and New York, Providence and T.F. Green Airport.

New legislation co-sponsored by Democrats from the eastern Connecticut delegation to the General Assembly proposes that the state Department of Transportation study the concept of two new passenger rail systems centered in the region.

One would simply extend the commuter rail system now operated as Shoreline East beyond New London to the Rhode Island border, where it could connect with existing Rhode Island commuter rail.

New passenger stations could be added in Groton and Stonington Borough.

The second line would put passenger trains on the existing Providence & Worcester freight line, which runs from Groton to Norwich and up into Massachusetts. Adding train cars could take passengers from Electric Boat and Pfizer in Groton up the Interstate 395 corridor to Worcester, Mass. Right now, freight travels at night and the tracks are unused during the day.

The two lines come together in Groton, where there could also be a station connection for transfers.

"All the track is there," said Rep. Christine Conley of Groton, one of the sponsors of the legislation and a member of the legislature's Transportation Committee. "We could have this broad concept of using public transportation."

Conley and Rep. Anthony Nolan of New London both told me they think the bill that would initiate a study of the new train systems for eastern Connecticut has the makings of success this session.

Nolan said the new train would be especially welcome in New London, which he said is already a transportation hub. "This will just increase the number of people who can get there," he said.

Conley and Nolan give credit for organizing the ideas and getting them this far to Zell Steever, a retired ecologist with a background in environmental analysis.

Steever, who in his official role is chairman of the Groton Resiliency and Sustainability Task Force, told me he has taken on the role of advocacy for the train expansion as a kind of retirement project.

He began working in earnest on the planning in 2019, starting with discussions with state DOT planners. He subsequently met with and obtained letters of support from town boards and then began working with lawmakers.

Steever is as enthusiastic about the idea as you might expect. He is also realistic about the great deal of work ahead to make it a reality.

One adversary will be lobbyists for the eastern Connecticut marinas on rivers who worry that more trains would mean fewer bridge openings and more limited river travel schedules for pleasure boaters.

An expansion of mass transportation would have to be weighed against the negative impact on some pleasure boating.

Steever made a good case for all the benefits of this reasonable expansion of train service throughout southeastern Connecticut during his recent testimony before the Transportation Committee: "This proposal would significantly improve the movement of people from home to work as well as for leisure activities with the benefit of reducing — rather than increasing — traffic congestion on I-95 and other roads, carbon pollution, commuting time and highway maintenance costs."

"These outcomes are one of the major goals of transit-oriented development and would greatly contribute to the continued economic growth and success of southeastern Connecticut as a major industrial and tourism center in Connecticut," he said.

And, best of all, the track is already in the ground.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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