Since Christmas, there has been much concern over planning for future rail service in Southeastern Connecticut and Southwestern Rhode Island. Near final plans have been released for the construction of a new and controversial rail bypass between Old Saybrook and Kenyon, RI. Additionally, the Connecticut Department of Transportation (CTDOT) sent a budget-cutting proposal to the governor’s office that proposed significantly reducing Shoreline East service, although this was ultimately not included in Connecticut Governor Daniel Malloy’s final 2017 budget proposal.
The rail bypass is a by-product of a push initiated by the Obama administration for the expansion of rail service throughout the United States. Naturally, the planning of projects for the Northeast Corridor (NEC), the Amtrak line between Boston, New York and Washington D.C., was included in this initiative. Within the next few weeks, as early as March 1, a significant part of Obama’s rail initiative for the NEC will come to fruition with the finalization of the FRA’s NEC FUTURE Tier 1 Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which outlines the government’s “preferred alternative” for future development of the NEC that would take place from now until at least 2040. This plan promises to have significant effects on how rail service will be expanded throughout the Northeast, and especially in Southeastern Connecticut.
Included in the EIS is the plan for a bypass between Old Saybrook and Kenyon, RI, which describes the bypass as beginning east of the Old Saybrook station and travelling north of the NEC’s current route. According to the plan, the line would cross the Connecticut River via a tunnel and continue “in a series of tunnels, trenches, and aerial structures parallel to I-95 through East Lyme.” It would then turn back to I-95, crossing the Thames River via a new bridge located between the highway’s two bridges and continue “on embankment or aerial structure parallel to I-95 through Groton and Stonington, crossing the Pawcatuck River north of the NEC into Westerly, Rhode Island.” A map indicates that the segment continues to parallel the current curvier tracks in Westerly and Charlestown before finally rejoining the NEC near the straight section of the current West Kingston, RI station. The plan also calls for a new, exclusively high-speed rail station to be built in New London County.
The proposed bypass has attracted much controversy in Southeastern Connecticut and Southwestern Rhode Island. Opponents of the plan are concerned about its impact given that use a great deal of land while bringing very few benefits to the region. At a recent public opposition meeting, Gregory Stroud, Executive Director of the opposing organization SECoast, claimed that most high-speed trains travelling on it would likely skip the New London County station, as there is not a large enough market for high-speed rail. Currently, twenty Acela trains, which are the fastest service available on the NEC, travel through New London, but only three make a stop at Union Station (two northbound and one southbound), and no Acelas stop in New London on weekends.
Many opponents of the bypass are concerned about its effect on property values. Some landowners, potentially including the Narragansett Tribe, would lose parts of their holdings should the bypass be built. Since the Tier 1 EIS only outlines future construction projects on the NEC, additional planning in the form of a Tier 2 EIS specific to the project will be required before construction begins. Currently no funds are appropriated for continuation of the bypass and given the breadth of NEC FUTURE’s improvements. Unless a significant appropriation is made for rail improvements in the Northeast in the next few years, it is quite likely that the project will not be revisited for the next 20 years, if ever.
However, once the Tier 1 EIS is finalized, it would become easier for the project to begin as long as proper procedure had been observed during the planning process, which opponents claim is not the case. They worry that in the meantime, the existence of these plans could make it difficult for everyone in or near affected areas to sell their property because of the uncertainty of if and when it would be appropriated for the project. Home sales in Old Lyme, a community that has been very vocal in its opposition to the proposal, declined over the past year, but there is at present only anecdotal evidence that this was linked to the bypass. Additionally, the large amount of construction required to create a rail line along I-95 in Stonington, Groton, and East Lyme would likely create traffic problems on the highway for the duration of construction. Bills currently in the Connecticut State Senate, sponsored by Senators Paul Formica (R-East Lyme), Heather Somers (R-Groton) and Representative Devin Carney (R-Old Lyme), propose requiring approval of any changes to commuter rail service or state funding for rail projects by the involved communities’ voters.
Acknowledging these concerns, the Tier 1 EIS observes that based on residents’ feedback, the FRA changed its plans for the bypass by calling for use of a tunnel, rather than a bridge, for the routing across the Connecticut River and Old Lyme. It also contains a statement noting that the current representation of the bypass must be reviewed in future planning studies and that “as a result of the Tier 2 project study, the alignment between Old Saybrook, CT, and Kenyon, RI, could shift north or south of the Representative Route.” In a recent webinar about NEC FUTURE FRA, officials repeatedly stated that the intent of the plan was to point to areas where capacity needs to be increased rather than outline the precise right of way that projects to do so would use. The officials also stated that they will continue to be influenced by public comment until the plan is finalized.
Opponents of the plan claim that the federal and state governments should focus on improving the current rail line rather than partially replacing it with a new one. They point out that the 110 year old drawbridge across the Connecticut River between Old Saybrook and Old Lyme is a significant bottleneck for train travel in the area, as it has a significantly lower speed limit than the rest of the rail line. They suggest replacing the drawbridge with a lift bridge that would allow for trains to cross at higher speeds. Opponents are also calling for the installation of detection equipment intended to stop a train if a vehicle or person gets stuck on the tracks at two private railroad crossings. Unlike most of the other crossings on the NEC, the private crossing in question does not have this equipment, and the NEC plan’s opponents claim its installation would cost less than $1 million.
Finally, opponents of the bypass are calling for a greater focus on improving commuter rather than intercity rail service. Specifically, they have called for extension of the Shoreline East service to Mystic and Westerly, RI. Such service would encourage the state of Rhode Island to extend its commuter service south of Providence to Westerly, which would give travelers the option of taking trains from Boston’s South Station to New York’s Grand Central Station without the use of Amtrak. In 2016, the Connecticut Public Transportation Commission’s annual report suggested that such an extension of Shoreline East should be of high priority to the state.
The state, however, has recently considered reducing Shoreline East service rather than extending it. A proposal submitted to Malloy’s office by CTDOT suggested cutting the Shoreline East budget in half, most likely resulting in a greater than 50% service reduction. Explaining the rationale behind this suggestion, CTDOT spokesman Judd Everhart told the Voice that “[on] Shore Line East, there are about 660,000 passenger trips annually. Fares on Shore Line East cover just 7 percent of operating costs, which total about $35 million. By comparison, Metro-North New Haven Line fares cover about 70 percent of operating costs, which total about $440 million. The New Haven Line has about 40 million passenger trips annually.”
Despite the suggested cuts, the governor’s final budget proposal maintained funding for rail service at originally planned levels. It was unclear whether this proposal would have affected service to New London, since most Shoreline East trains originate or terminate at Old Saybrook. •