Local officials testify in Hartford against potential rail bypass

Hartford — Local officials and community representatives testified before the legislature's Transportation Committee on Monday that a proposed rail bypass through southeastern Connecticut would hinder economic growth and threaten cultural, historic and environmental resources. 

They called on the General Assembly to join them in objecting to a potential rail bypass between Old Saybrook and Kenyon, R.I., that has garnered growing opposition in the state and in Rhode Island.

State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, and state Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Lyme, have introduced three pieces of legislation to fight a proposed rail bypass, which the Federal Railroad Administration included in its long-term plan for the Northeast Corridor.

Formica and Carney co-introduced a resolution, H.J. 54, for the General Assembly to object to the bypass. Formica said the resolution would represent a bipartisan stand against a rail bypass that would create a "massive disturbance" from Old Saybrook to Kenyon, R.I.

They also introduced a bill, S.B. 253, that would require referendum approval from each affected community before the state Department of Transportation could make changes to a rail line. Another bill, S.B. 263, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, and paired with S.B. 253, would require similar local approval before state funds could be applied to changing a rail line. 

During the Transportation Committee's public hearing at the Legislative Office Building, New London Mayor Michael Passero said the proposed bypass would hinder the limited tax base in his small, densely populated city.

"The proposed Kenyon bypass would create a new rail corridor through New London that would wipe out a significant portion of the existing tax-generating property," he said. "New London simply can't afford to lose any more taxable land."

He also said the bypass proposes to circumvent Union Station in downtown New London, a rail station that is vital not only to the city's and region's transportation needs and transportation-oriented development, but will "be hugely important to the success and development and sustainability of the future $100 million National Coast Guard Museum that's being built in New London."

Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder told the Transportation Committee that after the FRA released its draft Environmental Impact Statement, it did not hold public hearings in Fairfield, Middlesex or New London Counties, all areas that would be affected by the plan. She said that while the NEC FUTURE team did later travel to Old Lyme, the visit should have occurred before the map was drawn.

She cited recently released statistics that home sales in Old Lyme dropped 31 percent and median prices dropped 13 percent last year.

"While we have not determined the cause of these decreases for sure, we have been reporting for months that sales have slumped and buyers are reporting they don't want to buy due to the line on the map," she said.

Carney, who serves on the transportation committee, also noted the slump in home sales and said the proposed bypass is like a dark cloud hanging over the town.

Some speakers also noted that opposition has spread to Rhode Island, where that state's governor and federal delegation have opposed the plan.

Sen. Somers, in testifying in support of proposed H.J. 54 and S.B. 253, said both bills are "essential to halting the destructive plan that will destroy historic sites, cripple business, damage the environment, and imperil public safety."

Rather than rerouting the rail line, she pointed to other technologies available, such as "tilt technology" used in Europe that allows trains to travel at high speeds.

Chris Regan, owner of Olde Mistick Village, said the proposed rail bypass — which would go through sites including the back of Olde Mistick Village and Mystic Aquarium — would affect the state economically by decreasing property values and causing towns to lose taxes.

Lisa Konicki, president of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce, said the proposed bypass route would run over the aquifer that provides the primary source of water for Pawcatuck and Westerly. If the bypass came to fruition and the communities had to create a desalination plant to replace the aquifer's yield, the total cost is estimated at more than $70 million.

"The ill-conceived Kenyon to Old Saybrook bypass could put critical resources and the public health in serious jeopardy," she said. "Additionally, the proposal poses unacceptable negative impacts to Mystic's culture and historic character."

During the hearing, state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, said that much of the focus has been on the effects of FRA's plan in southeastern Connecticut, but a new set of tracks is also proposed in southwestern Connecticut, including through the Saugatuck section of Westport.

"We're right in the middle of a transit-oriented development process that this could totally upend," he said. He added that while he thinks legislators are sympathetic to the federal government's role of creating high speed rail, the government seems "to be very short on details" about why some aspects of the plan are necessary.

He said the concept of S.B. 253 should return some local control over land use issues. He said he hopes his colleagues would be concerned and be on top of the issue, even if it is 20 years away.

Rep. Antonio Guerrera , D-Rocky Hill, the committee's House chair, who expressed concerns over the rail plan during the hearing, agreed that it could happen to "any of us here." 

Formica said none of the communities are against rail improvements but feel the focus should be on fixing and upgrading the existing line and then providing increased commuter rail.

Formica said the legislation requiring local approval is currently broad, but it is intended to target the large impact that the FRA's plan would have. He will look to the committee for guidance to refine and narrow the legislation's scope.

The FRA released its final Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement for its plan in December and said it will accept comments until it publishes its Record of Decision.



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