Continued vigilance urged after Federal Railroad Administration rail decision

Continued vigilance urged after Federal Railroad Administration rail decision

The Westerly Sun

While area leaders are cautiously optimistic about the Federal Railroad Administration’s decision to drop the Old Saybrook to Kenyon bypass, many say grass-roots awareness and input will be essential as the planning for regional rail projects moves forward.

Gregory Stroud, director of special projects at the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, said Tuesday that while the bypass had been eliminated from the Federal Railroad Administration’s Record of Decision, the plan contained elements that required continued vigilance on the part of communities in southeastern Connecticut and southern Rhode Island.

“I don’t think it’s over by any means because the Record of Decision sets a benchmark that requires a transit time between New York City and Boston of 2 hours and 45 minutes, roughly an hour quicker than what it is right now,” he said. “The plan no longer proposes any solutions, instead it sets up the New Haven to Providence Capacity Planning Study, which requires the state-level departments of transportation in Connecticut and Rhode Island to take on a larger role, and to find a way to meet this mandated time savings.

“The Kenyon to Old Saybrook Bypass will always be an issue until we find a solution for the Northeast corridor, so it’s not over until we find that solution,” he said. “Whether that’s an inland route, whether that’s a coastal route, it requires a certain amount of vigilance and engagement from the public and that’s what we intend to work on as we go forward.”

Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons said Tuesday he was pleased with the railroad administration’s decision and hoped the focus would change to practical, reliable train routes, higher-level technology and fixing unsafe crossings.

“This proposal promised to destroy the communities we love, was outrageously expensive and would not provide significant improvement in service or speed to the traveling public,” Simmons said. “Now I hope the FRA, Amtrak and the state focus on what we really want — Shoreline East Service to Mystic and Westerly, Rhode Island; reliable and affordable train service to Boston and New York; tilt-technology to improve train performance on curves; and fixing the unsafe crossings at Walker’s Dock and Elihu Island here in Stonington.”

Simmons also called the decision “one of the biggest citizen victories in this area in 20 years,” and compared the achievement to saving the Naval Submarine Base in 2005.

“I was intimately involved with the sub base issue — they were shutting it down, it was gone — and I said we have to fight, and so we fought and we fought smart and we fought hard,” he said. “The citizens and activists in Old Saybrook, in Charlestown, in Stonington and a lot of cities bubbled up and worked with the local officials and federal delegation, (and) they made a compelling case.”

Stephen Bessette, administrator of the Stonington Community Forum on Facebook, said Tuesday the community exerted an extraordinary effort to communicate its opposition to the bypass, and it worked.

“With over 200 residents attending a late-winter rally this year and the thousands of comments submitted, residents of our community spoke out and were heard!” he wrote in the forum. “This united front of federal, state and local community elected officials that came together to oppose this plan in a unified, well-orchestrated manner demonstrates at the outset that this plan was ill-conceived and fraught with devastating historical, economic and environmental repercussions.”

Looking at the upcoming regional study, Bessette said the decision lifted a “cloud of uncertainty” from the towns along the potential bypass and cleared a path for moving forward with a “regionalized plan with all the stakeholders providing input and guidance.”

He also thanked all of the elected officials that came forward in a nonpartisan effort to rally against the Record of Decision and the grass-roots organizations that helped defeat the plan.

In Charlestown, Town Council Vice President Julie Carroccia said the council was pleased that state and federal officials listened to the town’s concerns about the proposed bypass and emphasized the importance of keeping the lines of communication open.

“In December we were surprised to find out about this plan — we don’t want any more surprises. It’s incumbent upon us to communicate, and it’s incumbent upon the state and federal government to communicate with us when they have plans that have huge impacts on communities,” she said. “It’s really important that state and federal planners reach out to local communities before making these kinds of decisions that impact those communities.”

The revised 30-year vision shows the railroad administration listened to the concerns of Rhode Islanders and “puts the state in the driver’s seat on future planning, study, and design decisions regarding any rerouting of tracks,” U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said Wednesday.

“While it allows for state-of-good repair projects within the existing right-of-way, the Record of Decision states that there will be no changes to the track alignment in Southern Rhode Island without additional study, analysis, and consultation initiated by the state,” he said. “Passenger rail is critical to Rhode Island’s economy and our future. Under this long-term plan, passenger rail service won’t bypass the state, nor will it force Rhode Islanders in Washington County to accept a new rail line they don’t want.”

Reed said the rail improvements laid out in the decision “will help enhance passenger rail service and safety up and down the East Coast and provide us with a more modern, integrated public transportation system for the future.”


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