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    Sunday, September 25, 2022

    Possible Shore Line East expansion, current service subject of public meeting

    The Connecticut Commuter Rail Council held a public meeting Wednesday night to give commuters and the state Department of Transportation an opportunity to discuss issues surrounding Shore Line East service.

    Meeting in Clinton and via Zoom, the council, an independent state board advocating for commuters, was joined by representatives from the DOT and Amtrak. Officials and members of the public discussed the possible expansion of Shoreline East service to Rhode Island and establishing new passenger rail service between New London/Groton and Norwich on existing tracks and then connecting the two services.

    A bill passed during the 2021 legislative session instructed the state Department of Transportation to conduct a feasibility study on extending Shore Line East service to Westerly, as well as establishing a new rail route from New London to Norwich and new passenger stations in Stonington and Groton.

    State Representatives Anthony Nolan, D-New London, and Christine Conley, D-Groton, led the support for the legislation. Zell Steever of Groton, a retired ecologist with a background in environmental analysis, was largely responsible for the effort to try and expand rail in Southeastern Connecticut.

    Steever said, “much to my surprise and delight,” $2.3 million was ultimately allocated to undertake the study.

    Steever credited state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, who is co-chair of the state legislature’s Appropriations Committee, for the allocation.

    During Wednesday’s meeting, Conley noted that a lack of train lines has people traveling 45 minutes by car on a regular basis, and the New London area has high rates of asthma.

    “It would be wonderful if we cold get more of those folks off the road and on the trains,” Conley said.

    Democrat Aundré Bumgardner, a Groton Town Council member who is running for the 41st House District, said Wednesday that he also supports the feasibility study.

    “Extending train lines from Groton toward Norwich would be a tremendous boon to our economy,” Bumgardner said.

    He argued that there is an “obligation to provide transit” to all the people settling in the area and working at Electric Boat.

    State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, said she knows a number of Electric Boat workers “who would love to have train service from Norwich or Rhode Island.”

    Somers challenged the Department of Transportation to answer this question in its study: “How do we handle the problem that we have that Amtrak owns the rail lines from New Haven north? … Is there another set of rails we have to lay down?”

    Somers also asked the DOT to determine what level of ridership is needed to make expanded rail service feasible, and noted how helpful it would be to Mystic’s already strong tourism industry — and its lack of parking — to add additional trains from New York or Fairfield County to Mystic.

    Multiple Groton residents implored officials to add more trains in order to get cars off the road and reduce carbon dioxide levels, mitigating climate change.

    Several members of the public said they felt existing Shore Line East lines should be made more reliable before embarking on a larger project.

    Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, Steever said the state has started conducting the feasibility study in earnest and is in its early stages of data gathering.

    A DOT employee and a consultant for Aecom, an infrastructure consulting firm, laid out the plan for the feasibility study after public comment Wednesday night.

    The study is currently evaluating the condition of existing rail in the several corridors on either side of the Thames River. It is also looking at ridership in the region. The study will eventually progress to cost projections for the expansion and ridership forecasts.

    The study is examining possible station locations in the region by measuring compatibility with surrounding land uses, environmental considerations and other constraints.

    The DOT is aiming to continue public engagement into the new year and to provide updates on its website.

    “The other interesting part of this particular piece of legislation is the state reps all wanted to include not only the rail part, but also how could buses and other forms of public transportation contribute to this whole thing,” Steever said.

    Steever extolled the possibilities of expanding service, including ensuring transportation for the increasing number of workers in the area at Pfizer and Electric Boat and doing more to combat climate change by advocating for public transportation and increasing tourism to places such as New London and Mystic.

    Wednesday’s meeting also focused on Shore Line East’s current level of service. While the rest of the state’s rail lines have been brought back to pre-COVID service levels, Shore Line East hasn’t.

    “We’ve heard from a number of commuters in particular and the public in general who are wondering when that’s going to happen,” Steever said. “The overall problem is a shift in commuter patterns. There’s obviously operational issues that have been around for a while. Shore Line East recently upgraded their rail cars from the old ones to all electric.”

    s.spinella@theday.com

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