Federal railroad plan has local leaders worried Federal railroad plan has local leaders worried

Federal railroad plan has local leaders worried Federal railroad plan has local leaders worried

The Westerly Sun

A proposed alternative rail route through the Northeast Corridor has area leaders concerned as it appears to bypass Westerly and cut through parts of Mystic and Stonington.

The Federal Railroad Administration launched NEC Future in February 2012, saying that looking at three proposed plans would create a framework for the future investments needed to evaluate and improve passenger rail capacity and service. Business owners and local leaders see it differently.

The first of the three potential alternatives is the most problematic. In it, the tracks cross the Thames River in New London, and continue between the northbound and southbound lanes of I-95 on either an embankment or aerial structure parallel to the highway through Groton and Stonington before crossing the Pawcatuck River north of the existing rail into Westerly. Along with cutting right through Olde Mistick Village, the Mystic Aquarium and Elmridge Golf Course, the proposed line bypasses the downtown Westerly-Pawcatuck area and heads straight out toward Bradford and Wood River Junction.

The FRA said that this first alternative to the corridor would maintain the role of rail as it is today while increasing service to keep pace with growth in population and employment.

Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons said he finds this option disconcerting, especially because the map of the route and documents regarding this alternative lack a lot of detail about how the track would be engineered and whether the track would go over, around or through the popular local attractions.

“It crosses the river at Route 78 and then proceeds down I-95 to the Mystic triangle,” he said. “Obviously, it goes inland a couple of miles and eliminates some of the more windy curves but I really don’t think it makes any sense as it cuts right through the Mystic tourism district and completely bypasses Westerly.”

Joyce Olson Resnikoff, owner of Olde Mistick Village, said the railroad administration is going to have a big fight on its hands if it moves forward with the proposal.

“They don’t understand what they’re doing,” she said. “If they want to come through here, no way, I won’t let it happen.”

Westerly Town Councilor Jean Gagnier has been a strong proponent of bringing the Shoreline East commuter rail to downtown Westerly and agreed with Simmons, saying the proposal is distressing.

His main concern is the possibility of losing the Westerly train station as a stop and how that could affect tourism and seasonal or commuting residents.

“Our train station plays an important role in our community,” he said. “From the initial passages here, it appears that they want to get away from the shoreline and I’m sure climate change is playing a role.”

Another concern of Simmons is what would happen to the existing rail.

“They spent a lot of money to electrify the shoreline a few years ago,” he said. “It seems like it’s too big an expenditure to just write it off the books and come up with an entirely new route.”

Another alternative proposed in the report would include growing the rail to add service that accommodates a larger portion of Northeast travelers as population and employment grow. In that option, a proposed supplemental route between New Haven, Hartford and Providence would allow service to new passengers, reduce the trip time and increase resiliency.

The third option transforms the rail’s role, positioning it as a dominant mode for intercity travelers and commuters. In addition to major service upgrades on the existing Northeast corridor, a two-track second spine would be added between New York and Boston to support high-performance rail service between major cities.

The proposal bypassing Westerly would require a $65 billion investment. The costs would be spread out over many years.

The final environmental review and a “record of decision” is expected to be completed this year, followed by a development plan in 2017.

Simmons has already begun sending letters to the state’s congressional delegation asking why these major projects are being proposed when there are safety upgrades that need to be made to existing track.

“I’m very opposed to it,” he said. “It’s a waste of time and money.”

R.I. Senate Minority Leader Dennis L. Algiere of Westerly said he has received several calls from concerned constituents and is looking into the matter. “I worked with Amtrak years ago and continue to work with them to ensure we continue train stops in Westerly. Not only does the track bypass Westerly in the proposal, but it bypasses some Connecticut communities as well and goes through some environmentally sensitive areas,” he said. “Strategic planning is important to any business or agency but this proposal seems very problematic to me.”



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