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    Thursday, September 28, 2023

    What’s Going On: Time for DOT to get on the right track

    With the state Department of Transportation just days away from releasing a draft final report on the feasibility of boosting rail and bus options in southeastern Connecticut, proponents like Ed Johnson of Noank are already gearing up for hearings on the plan within the next couple weeks.

    “What is badly needed at this point will be strong input from the public,” he told me in an email.

    Two hearings are planned locally, from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 19, at the Thrive55+ Active Living Center in Groton and from 1 to 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 20, at Otis Library in Norwich. Another Zoom meeting is planned with advance registration from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Sept. 20.

    “The overriding objective is to reduce pollution and greenhouse gases in our environment....and we are rapidly running out of time,” Johnson said.

    The study, planned for release Tuesday, is expected to address four key ideas:

    – Extending the Shore Line East rail line to Rhode Island.

    – Establishing new passenger rail service between New London and Norwich

    – Establishing new passenger rail service between Groton and Stonington Borough.

    – Adding new ground transportation routes in the region while improving connections between bus lines and rail.

    Johnson, who works with the Eastern Connecticut Rail and Transit Study Committee led by a Noank neighbor, E. Zell Steever, said the pandemic cut ridership on the Shore Line East rail line, and the service’s once-reliable timetables deteriorated, frustrating riders.

    “This problem is now aggravated by political decisions to reduce the number of trains between New London and New Haven,” Johnson said. “If anything, there should be an increase in the number of scheduled trips in order to re-attract more riders.”

    The need for more rail service has been ramping up lately, he said, because of tie-ups related to daily dynamiting along Interstate 95 in East Lyme as a major reconstruction gets under way, a five-year project that will cause many long delays for commuters and tourists alike.

    One thing on the local rail committee’s wish list is passenger service using rechargeable battery powered rail cars running from New London to Norwich, with stops at Mohegan Sun and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

    “This would be an extension to assist commuters to and from New London and Norwich as well as tourists from Boston and New York heading to the casinos,” Johnson said.

    The group also wants expanded local bus service to supplement the rail system.

    “The overriding purpose of this activity is to dramatically reduce greenhouse gases and the large number of personal cars on the road,” Johnson said. “With the increased tourism activity coming to this area, rail service that places passengers within walking distance to downtown Mystic without parking will be a further drawing card.”

    Of course, it’s too early to say whether the feasibility study to be released this week will back some of the public transportation boosters’ ideas or act as a blanket on their enthusiasm. But a public survey report released in February was encouraging, showing that 27% of respondents said they would use Shore Line East services regularly if they were extended to Westerly, and 29% indicating an interest in regularly using a New London to Norwich rail service.

    “Expanded passenger train and transit services will not solve all the climate-change issues, but it begins to resolve some of the difficult problems today associated with traffic congestion, delays, highway deaths, public safety, climate change, air pollution, and sustainable development,” said Steever, chaiman of the Groton Resiliency and Sustainability Task Force, in a letter to the DOT responding to an August draft of the report. “I urge you in the feasibility analysis to compare the costs of expanded rail/bus service against the real costs of vehicular traffic in the Connecticut.”

    Overall, said Steever, “The information and technical analysis ... clearly supports the feasibility and market for expanding and establishing additional new passenger rail and transit service in eastern Connecticut in all corridors.”

    Steever indicated that an early draft of the Eastern Connecticut Corridor Rail and Transit Feasibility Study had cited a possible move of the Mystic train station to the east side of Masons Island Road, which he said made little sense.

    “This would move the station to a location that is too far to walk to downtown Mystic (now the fourth most popular CT tourist destination), away from the two major roads running north to the Mystic Seaport, the Mystic Aquarium, Old Mystic Village and the surrounding hotels,” he said in a letter to the DOT.

    Johnson and Steever, two stalwart supporters of public transportation in southeastern Connecticut, know the difficulty of getting folks in Hartford to sit up and take notice when public transportation here is inadequate. So they are now counting on local residents to become active and make their voices heard.

    The public will have 45 days to comment on the draft report before these ideas are compiled into the final report to be presented to the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee in December.

    “We need the public to tell good stories about why passenger rail and bus service is important to them,” Steever said.

    “If strong public interest and concerns are directly expressed, both committee members and political representatives will recognize the need for this infrastructure project,” added Johnson. “It has now become clear that our lifestyles in the near future are more and more dependent on the actions we take today.”

    Lee Howard is The Day’s business editor.

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