About That Rail Route More Parallel to I-95

We’re not sure what to make of reported comments by Amtrak head William Flynn, who apparently reassured Charlestown, RI in a recent phone call that the multistate Northeast Corridor Commission is now leaning toward routing a new high-speed rail line between Providence and New Haven on a path “more parallel to Route 95.”

If you don’t recall, the last attempt to finalize a route — a fiasco known as the Kenyon to Old Saybrook Bypass — went down in flames in 2017.

That left unfinished business on the federal level, where the Federal Railroad Administration still needs (wants?) to complete its binding federal blueprint for funding rail investments to speed travel between Washington, DC, and Boston. 

Town Council President Deb Carney recounts assurances from Amtrak CEO William Flynn
August 10, 2021, Charlestown, RI Town Council Meeting

We have no idea how much of any of this will ever get built, but it’s no “crayon drawing” as Senator Chris Murphy has claimed on a number of occasions.  

In fact, an analysis at the time by Alon Levy, a well-known transportation writer, concluded that the routes reflect a combination of textbook geometry to straighten a series of nasty curves through Connecticut and Rhode Island, and some highly-localized tweaks –  through Darien in particular – which suggested a more careful calculus of politics on the ground and an attempt to minimize likely impacts of the drawn route as it wended its way through the required federal planning process.

When we left off 4 years ago, the Federal Railroad Administration was forced to release a blueprint that essentially punted on the portion of the plan between New Haven and Providence, requiring instead a “New Haven to Providence Capacity Study” to eventually settle on a route.

Apparently, that eventuality is now, and the newly announced federal transportation bill is expected to include funding to complete the work, with enough leeway to consider a Hartford to Providence route, like the one favored by Harford Mayor Luke Bronin, but also the chance to return to the Kenyon to Old Saybrook Bypass.

Besides a couple of tricky statutory triggers – electrifying the Hartford Line for example – the record of decision included a proviso that the study could not simply settle on a solution within the existing Northeast Corridor right of way. So, any plan (if built) is bound to bring with it a variety of impacts, for better or worse.

But here’s the rub…

As far as NEC Future is concerned, the route “more parallel to Route 95” is the Kenyon to Old Saybrook Bypass. And if we are to believe the verbal assurances of Flynn, rail officials are once again on a collision course with eastern Connecticut and southern Rhode Island.

If you love high-speed rail, well, I hate to say it, but the process will soon be speeding along toward another, avoidable, fiasco. And if you opposed NEC Future the first time, well, I’ve got news for you, it’s unlikely that there will be more to love this time around  – particularly for the towns of Old Lyme, East Lyme, New London and Stonington.

Perhaps to the east of Stonington, there may be a bit more wiggle room, but if you live in Charlestown, the last thing you want to pin your future on, are verbal assurances to a small-town official who happens to be friends of friends with the head of Amtrak. That just isn’t how the federal infrastructure planning process works.

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