Malloy, Amtrak to try to work out commuter rail dispute
Hartford — In a bid to resolve cost and schedule disagreements over the Hartford Line commuter rail project, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is scheduled to meet Thursday with Amtrak executives and federal Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
The outcome of the session could determine whether Connecticut can start high-frequency train service between New Haven and Springfield by the end of 2016. The talks also may resolve the question of who will be responsible for a projected $180 million overrun — or perhaps whether it can be averted.
"We want to try to reset this relationship," Malloy said Wednesday afternoon. "What should be paramount is creating the greatest service at the least cost."
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a key rail advocate in the Senate, said it's essential that everyone involved in the project work cooperatively.
"The line is vital to the future of jobs and economic growth. This meeting will be an important opportunity and I'll push hard for a path forward," Blumenthal said.
Connecticut has put $244 million toward building a second track along the line between New Haven and Hartford, and improving signals, grade crossings and more along the entire 62-mile stretch from New Haven to Springfield. The federal government is putting up $191 million.
The plan is to run high-frequency commuter trains along the line, which parallels I-91, to give workers a better way to reach jobs. Trains will connect with Metro-North Railroad in New Haven so residents of towns from Enfield to North Haven would get access to jobs in Fairfield County.
But construction stalled more than a year ago during a fallout between Connecticut and Amtrak.
Malloy in May sent Foxx a blistering letter about Amtrak, which owns the railbed and tightly controls all construction work. Malloy wrote that Amtrak's mismanagement and uncooperative attitude was delaying work and threatening the construction schedule and budget. He suggested that if the Federal Railroad Administration couldn't prod Amtrak to move faster, Foxx should transfer ownership of the line to Connecticut.
Amtrak's only public response has been to say it views the problems differently, but is working to "collaboratively address the challenges."
Soon after Malloy's letter became public, though, Amtrak agreed to replace half of its daily shuttle trains with buses so that track crews can work longer hours unimpeded by traffic.
Malloy on Wednesday said part of why the state's relationship with the railroad is poor is that "Amtrak has been in a foxhole for so long."
The railroad has been under intense pressure for years in Congress, where a contingent of Republicans — including many from sparsely developed, rural states — has pushed to cut its funding. The most successful Amtrak lines in the country are in the congested Northeast.
Connecticut is looking for a railroad operator to run the Hartford Line, and Amtrak has long been considered a leading contender for the contract. It operates numerous short- and mid-length lines under contract with states. At the same time, though, Redeker has suggested to legislators that Connecticut might use the new service to explore working with one of the private contractors that are running bus and rail lines for dozens of cities.