Rail bypass opponent says coastal residents face hard choices

Rail bypass opponent says coastal residents face hard choices

The Westerly Sun


Communities across southeastern Connecticut and southern Rhode Island breathed a sigh of relief last month when the Federal Railroad Administration withdrew plans to build the controversial Old Saybrook to Kenyon Bypass, but a new study for alternatives is underway that could allow the bypass to return.

The railroad administration’s Record of Decision was considered a victory by many residents who opposed the 50-mile bypass, which would have added inland tracks running through residential, business, farm and conservation land. The bypass was part of the Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement for NEC Future, an initiative to improve passenger rail service between Washington, D.C., and Boston.

With the announcement of the decision, the railroad administration called on leaders in Connecticut and Rhode Island and federal rail officials to work together on the “New Haven to Providence Capacity Planning Study” to develop alternatives that would best meet future demand.

Gregory Stroud, of Old Lyme, who is the director of special projects for the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, said he questions whether the bypass plan might simply return, “in 10 years, say, when things are settled down.”

“From a legal planning perspective, it seems very clear that there’s nothing in the Record of Decision that would preclude that happening,” he said in an interview on Saturday.

Stroud helped to organize opposition to the bypass in Connecticut in early 2016, and later played a similar role in Westerly and Charlestown, which also opposed the project.

One of Stroud’s concerns about the route was the level of planning that went into it. He said he submitted several Freedom of Information Act requests for detailed maps and documentation, but adequate materials were never sent. He said he received low-quality maps in February but no documentation.

“How well was the Kenyon to Old Saybrook planned out? How site-specific was the planning? How far along was it?” he said.

The documents would help Stroud and his group understand the thinking and effort behind the planning. “It wasn’t just a crayon drawing and wasn’t done by some uneducated young engineers in Washington and New York, this was the A-team that drew this, and we’ve been told this was the A-team,” he said — but he wasn’t given access to that level of information.

A few ideas are on the table, he said, including an alternative inland route from New Haven to Hartford to Storrs to Providence.

“Whether this would be acceptable to Rhode Island and southeastern Connecticut is unknown,” he said.

Even though cutting travel time by as much as 45 minutes between New York and Boston was a major goal of the railroad administration’s plan, the real issue is capacity, Stroud said. He pointed out the name of the study: “New Haven to Providence Capacity Planning Study.”

One of the railroad administration’s assumptions is that Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Washington will see a 75 percent increase in jobs, he said.

“If you notice, none of those cities are in Connecticut or Rhode Island, so basically that capacity is to connect these really big, growing job centers,” he said. “But from Connecticut’s perspective, we need to connect our smaller cities, so we need to create smaller commuter webs; part of capacity is allowing for this greater commuter traffic to coexist with this higher speed traffic between the major cities.”

Even though new routes are supposed to sustain a top speed of 220 mph, it’s unlikely that trains in the Northeast corridor would approach that velocity, he said.

Resiliency is the “third leg of the stool,” he said, and that also has political implications because it often deals with sea level rise.

“It’s not simple solutions that we need to look at right now but hard choices and realistic choices,” he said. “For Rhode Island and Connecticut that means a hard look at an inland route and what that means,” he added. “Ultimately that means whether to continue along the coast, which would eventually lead to a Kenyon to Old Saybrook bypass, or go inland, that’s the real choice here.”

The Northeast corridor is a transportation and economic community and citizens need to stay involved and look for solutions, not merely for way to shift the impact to other towns, he said.

“How can we create the best Northeast corridor we can without the unacceptable impacts,” he said. “Part of it is being a good citizen and trying to work with the state and federal governments for the best solutions we can get.”

chewitt@thewesterlysun.com


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