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    Tuesday, November 28, 2023

    Residents, officials support rail, bus improvements at hearing

    Norwich ― Mystic resident and bus rider Susan Burfoot on Wednesday called the region’s bus service inadequate, saying she supports the expansion of bus service recommended in a new study.

    She said if it’s a hot day and someone wants to take a bus to the beach on a Sunday, they can’t. Some people rely on the bus to get to work, but sometimes have to take costly Uber rides when the bus schedule doesn’t match their work schedule.

    “This is expensive, but it’s so needed and we’re in a climate catastrophe,” she said of the potential public transit expansion.

    Burfoot was among the southeastern Connecticut residents who spoke Wednesday afternoon at a public meeting, attended by about 30 people, at the Otis Library, regarding the Eastern Connecticut Corridor Rail and Transit Feasibility Study.

    Residents and officials spoke in support of expanding bus and rail service, and asked questions and offered suggestions.

    The state legislature directed the DOT to conduct the feasibility study of expanding Shore Line East commuter rail, which operates between New Haven and New London, to Westerly, R.I., and adding commuter rail between New London and Norwich.

    The study found that bus improvements could meet a lot of the region’s short-term and long-term transportation needs, particularly along the Thames River corridor, according to Elise Greenberg, project manager for the DOT.

    But she said rail expansion could be a viable option in the longer term, and there is a stronger market for rail along the Northeast Corridor than the Thames River Corridor, though demand along that corridor could change in the future.

    Study findings

    The DOT studied options for expanding rail, including on freight lines owned by Genesee & Wyoming on the east and west side of the Thames River between New London and Norwich; along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor between New London and Westerly, and on a secondary line in Groton.

    The DOT said it found that the railroad bridge over the Thames River was a “major constraint” and could only accommodate one additional train crossing the bridge in each direction per hour. The DOT focused on further analyzing extending Shore Line East rail service on the Northeast Corridor tracks from New London to Westerly and on new commuter rail service between New London and Norwich along the western Palmer line tracks, which would “serve the most people, businesses, and other regional destinations,” according to the study.

    The study identified seven locations for potential train stations, including in Groton, Mystic and Stonington Borough along the Northeast Corridor, and in New London near the Coast Guard Academy and Connecticut College, Montville near Mohegan Sun, and Norwich near the Norwich Transportation Center. The study said the Shore Line East trains require higher train platforms that need to be ADA accessible, so the existing Mystic station could not accommodate the trains.

    According to the presentation, expanding Shore Line East to Westerly could cost about $243 million with $52 million in annual operating costs. Commuter rail service along the Palmer Line could cost $636 million and $33 million in annual operating costs.

    The expansion of rail would lead to nearly 286,000 new riders annually and substantially reduce greenhouse gases, according to the DOT.

    Housing, economic development

    The presentation noted that the region lacks affordable housing, has lower median income and less job growth, and 44% of renters spend more than 30% of their income on rent. The study identified opportunity for zone changes and transit oriented development along the proposed rail lines, particularly along the Thames River corridor.

    The DOT focused on the potential for improving bus connections between New London and Norwich, and Groton and Norwich, adding service in Groton, New London and Stonington, according to Jill Cahoon, project manager from consultant firm AECOM. Overall, this could lead to an up to 25% increase in ridership.

    Improving bus service could cost $9 million to $10 million in one-time costs, and then $3.5 million to $4.1 million in annual operating costs.

    Public, local officials weigh in

    Kathy Capon, board member at Catholic Charities, said many clients rely on buses and can’t afford cars. She said she hopes keeping bus fares down is a consideration.

    Groton resident Dana Oviatt, who takes the train to New York on a regular basis, asked if there was anything he could do to help speed up improvements.

    Zell Steever, chairman of the Groton Resiliency and Sustainability Task Force and a member of the Connecticut Public Transportation Council, said the report demonstrates that it is feasible to expand rail and transit in the region, which would boost economic development and also mitigate climate change by taking more vehicles off the road and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

    However, according to Steever, the report should consider the Norwich Branch line east of the Thames River or the Groton secondary line.

    Norwich City Manager John Salomone, treasurer of Southeast Area Transit, said SEAT is interested in partnering with the state on enhancing bus service and already is looking at route changes, including a potential direct route from Norwich to Electric Boat. He said Norwich housing is generally more affordable than on the coastline and a lot of rentals are being built in Norwich, with the potential for EB employees to live there.

    Stonington Borough Warden Michael Schefers spoke in support of a potential Stonington train station, mentioning economic development and the governor’s goals of trying to expand affordable housing. But he said the proposed Mystic location is potentially on wetlands and he recommends it be moved to the west side of the existing rail station.

    The DOT said additional studies and funding would be needed to move forward. More information is available at https://portal.ct.gov/eastern-ct-rail.

    The public comment period will end Oct. 20. The DOT will deliver a final report to the state legislature by Nov. 30.


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