Groton — Finding substantial federal funding for expansion of rail service in Southeastern Connecticut was a major focus of Sen. Chris Murphy’s address at the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce breakfast Friday morning.
“We cannot accept the status quo, building new rail in the past was always difficult but if we just continue to let the northeast rail corridor atrophy, then Connecticut’s economy will atrophy. My focus is how you come up with the $50 billion to $150 billion you need to rebuild rail along the Northeast Corridor,” he said.
At the “Groton Business Update” event, Murphy spoke to about 200 chamber members at the Mystic Marriott Hotel and Spa in Groton. He was joined by speakers Jonathan Reiner, director of planning and development for the Town of Groton, and Dan Meiser, Stonington-based restaurateur and chair of the Connecticut Restaurant Association.
Murphy said the federal mindset toward the future of rail transportation had to change dramatically.
“What I’m talking about is how we finance rail. There’s an existing discussion about how you build high speed rail and where you build it — that’s a logistical question — what I’m talking about is how you finance the future of rail,” Murphy said. “Every year we always argue whether we’re going to give Amtrak $1.2 billion or $1.4 billion when you need $100 billion to activate this kind of project.”
The first step was to modernize commercial rail infrastructure in eastern Connecticut and to build passenger service on top of that, Murphy said.
Beyond that, Connecticut needed to dedicate more money toward transportation infrastructure, as other states are already doing, he said.
“Most states are spending about 40 to 50% in state dollars and the rest, 50 to 60%, are federal dollars. The federal government requires state spending of at least 20% state dollars and 80% federal dollars. When Dan Malloy became governor, Connecticut was spending 20% and he got it up to 30%, but that’s still low,” he said. “I know there’s still a discussion going on about tolls, but whatever we do, we have to increase the state commitment to transportation because we are an outlier with respect to other states, we’re spending an abnormally low amount.”
Murphy said he doubted a transportation bill would be passed under the Trump administration but he wanted the state to be ready when it is with “big ideas.”
“I want to be ready when this infrastructure bill comes and have Washington make a massive new investment in Connecticut, not just a little more money to fix a couple of bridges and a couple more intersections — I want a big, new map of federal funding so that we can radically transform rail so you can get from New London down to New York in 60 percent of the amount of time it takes today, which I tell you would transform the entirety of the Connecticut shoreline if all of a sudden your times got shorter and shorter.”
Murphy also said he was concerned Connecticut would not be ready for the “boom of manufacturing work that is coming to this state and to this region of the state in particular.”
With a projected “$12.2 billion investment in three Virginia-class submarines being built in the coming fiscal year,” Murphy said job training was essential.
“All of this is great news except that we don’t have the people to do these jobs today so our focus has to be laser-like on workforce development. We have to rethink the entire way we educate our kids and expose them early on to manufacturing jobs.”
Increasing the numbers of manufacturing jobs will grow other areas of the economy, he said.
“The rest of the economy thrives off of manufacturing jobs because every single manufacturing job has two and a half other jobs that are created because of it,” he said.
Culinary tourism in southeastern Connecticut was Meiser’s focus. He is CEO and founder of 85th Day Food Community, owner of Oyster Club, Engine Room, Treehouse, and Grass and Bone, owner and board member of Stone Acres Farm and chair of the Connecticut Restaurant Association
“Tourism is something that is not new to the economy southeastern Connecticut — that is what drives our economy,” he said. “But culinary tourism is a new brand of tourism, it’s a boutique subset of the greater economy that I believe is absolutely critical to the region’s economic future.”
Meiser said he believed the region can draw tourists from all over the nation and the globe.
“We have a history and a tradition of farming, fishing and cooking, artisan production, and our region can compete and is competing on a national scale,” he said.
When he opened Oyster Club eight years ago, he and his team chose to think year-round rather than seasonally, he said.
“We said, let’s create our own tourist destination, let’s create a culture that brings people to Mystic from all over the country and let’s give them the experience of food. We never opened in Mystic to compete with other restaurants, we opened in Mystic to compete with the rest of America.”
Reiner spoke about the importance of creating a sense of place in Groton that would attract more residents and grow the tax base.
“Of the 26,000 jobs in Groton, only 20% of the employees live in Groton,” he said. “A big focus that we’re trying to push is how do we get people who work here to live here and experience the great thing we have in Groton and in this region.”
Reiner said the town has developed a website and marketing materials and the next steps involve changing some of the zoning, including reducing the number of zones, and implementing tax incremental financing to encourage investment.