CLINTON – On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of state legislators took the opportunity of a Connecticut Commuter Rail Council meeting to voice support for a long-discussed expansion of Shore Line East.
“It’s really heartening to see commuters and legislators here,” said Jim Gildea, chair of CCRC, in response to the unusually well-attended council meeting.
The council met to discuss two key priorities – returning Shore Line East to its pre-Covid schedule and expanding rail service in eastern Connecticut.
A presentation by Eric Bergeron, assistant rail administrator for the Connecticut Department of Transportation, reported that Shore Line East currently operates at 66 percent of its pre-Covid schedule.
But while Bergeron said that ridership has returned to other commuter lines as they’ve returned service, for Shore Line East funding is a constraint.
“Every single rail system is subsidized,” said State Sen. Osten, D-Sprague, co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, in comments to attendees. “And I think that that’s a good investment of the public’s dollars.”
According to a 2021 Connecticut Creates report, Shore Line East ranked among the highest-cost commuter rail lines in the country with a state subsidy of $55.28 per ride.
During a phone call with CT Examiner, Gildea acknowledged the Shore Line East subsidy, but said there is not a method of transportation in the country that is not subsidized.
He said the significant turnout of politicians at the meeting showed him that the legislature is poised to support investment in rail.
“[Osten] clearly said that the legislature has given the Department of Transportation whatever they’ve asked for, and if they need additional funding to support a restoration of 100 percent service, all they have to do is ask.”
Along with Osten, legislators including State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Goton, State Rep. Christine Goupil, D-Clinton, State Rep. Christine Conley, D-Groton, and State Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Lyme, took part in the hybrid meeting.
Several voiced support for 2021 legislation, HB 5423, directing the commissioner of transportation to conduct a feasibility study for extending Shore Line East to Rhode Island, establish a Norwich rail line, create new train stations in Groton and the borough of Stonington and bring interconnectivity between the systems.
The results of that study were due by Jan. 1, 2022. Jill Cahoon, the consultant project manager, said the study is still underway, and is only the first step in a line of studies.
“I also would like to see us stop studying things and move the projects along,” Osten said.
The idea of expanding Shore Line East to Westerly, RI has been a long-time topic for discussion, previously appearing in a 2001 Rhode Island Department of Transportation report, former Gov. Dannel Malloy’s 30-year transit plan, and a 2016 recommendation by the state’s Public Transportation Commission.
At Wednesday’s council meeting, Goupil said she wanted connectivity between buses and rail. Conley said she needed service for commuters to support Groton’s largest employers. Somers asked for weekend trains to Mystic in the summer.
After the meeting, Osten told CT Examiner that advocates needed for legislators to keep talking about the expansion to get the proper funding.
“They can’t vote on something that nobody is sponsoring and bringing to them,” Osten said.