Following pleas from rail advocates, state legislators affirmed their support for improving and expanding Shore Line East during the 2023 legislative session.
Members of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council – a 15-member group appointed by the Governor and senior leaders of the Connecticut General Assembly to advocate for rail commuters – developed and presented three key goals for Shore Line East service to legislators at a Dec. 21 Zoom meeting:
- Restore the pre-Covid schedule
- Restore express trains through New Haven to Stamford
- Advance a long-awaited expansion study.
Jim Gildea, chair of CCRC, told CT Examiner that participating state representatives and senators were “passionately in favor” of supporting Shore Line East, and said he was hopeful for the 2023 session.
“There’s no time that the legislators are more powerful than over the next six months,” Gildea said. “And if they wield that power correctly, I think that with all three of those issues, the Commuter Rail Council will be able to look back and see that it was successful.”
Gildea said the council often heard the three issues from commuters, but said the lacking Shore Line East schedule was the most frequent complaint. He said the line is operating at about 66 percent of its previous service level but the Danbury, New Canaan, Hartford, Waterbury and New Haven lines all essentially returned to their pre-Covid schedules.
The state has attributed the line’s scarce schedule to constrained funding with one of the priciest state subsidies in the country at $55.28 per ride. But Gildea said he expected legislators to make a change in the coming months.
“It would be my hope and expectation that there will be legislative action requiring a return to 100 percent [service],” he said.
Following the kickoff of the 2023 session, Gildea emailed Transportation Committee co-chairs State Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, and State Sen. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, four bills on behalf of CCRC for the legislators to consider. The first on the list was an act to fully restore Shore Line East service.
While a potential bill was not confirmed, State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Norwich, told CT Examiner that Shore Line East was a priority for her this year. As chair of the Appropriations Committee and a member of the Transportation Committee, she said, legislators did not question subsidies for bus and rail – they fund CTDOT at the level they need.
“I’ll be asking DOT to make sure that they’re including funding in their budget for returning Shore Line East to its full schedule,” Osten said.
Of the three issues CCRC presented, Osten said service restoration was the most important, with the state-mandated expansion study of the Shore Line East to Rhode Island following closely behind. She said the state needed to restore commuter faith in the southeastern line.
CCRC member Blaize Levitan told CT Examiner that although he lived within walking distance from the Guilford train station, he skipped the Shore Line East altogether and drove to the West Haven station for his daily commute to Greenwich, citing the reduced and unreliable schedule.
“The Shore Line East schedule is so reduced that you’re talking like an hour and 20 minutes to two hours in between trains,” Levitan said. “So, if you’re commuting by train and you miss one, you could be talking another two to three hours.”
From an environmental and economic perspective, Levitan said, he would prefer to avoid the drive to West Haven. But he said the lack of service left shoreline commuters to perpetuate a harmful cycle.
“We have some of the worst air quality in the Northeast, and we have the most congested section of I-95,” Levitan said. “So, the more people that can take rail, it benefits everybody in the state of Connecticut because we’re helping clean up air, it’s less cars on the road and it’s less congestion for everybody else.”
In addition to Shore Line East schedules, Levitan said, another useful service was stunted in 2020 – through express trains to Stamford. Prior to 2020, Shore Line East operated weekday express trains beyond New Haven with stops in West Haven, Bridgeport and Stamford.
But while the 2022 switch from diesel trains to electric M8 cars on the Shore Line East promoted quieter, cleaner rails, they complicated through service to the Metro-North Line because of an incompatible “phase gap” in voltage that CCRC members have asked legislators to address.
Levitan said whether CTDOT fixed the phase gap or achieved the goal in another way, express service from eastern to western Connecticut should be a priority.
“You’re covering the biggest train stations in Connecticut with that train ride, and that concept should return,” Levitan said.
Additionally, Levitan said, Shore Line East was often “confusing” for some commuters. Because the line’s mobile app was different from the rest of the rail system, riders often skipped Shore Line East and drove to a Metro-North station for a straightforward, simple process.
“Just the way it’s set up, it’s not welcoming to riders who want to get on it. So, of course people don’t ride if they don’t have to,” Levitan added.
Included in the Thursday email with the four bills from CCRC was an act to fund a feasibility study to create a synchronous travel app, combining all the various public transportation modes and allowing for schedule linking. The two remaining bills asked for a continuation of the fare free busing program to build ridership, and legislation to support CCRC in offsetting communication costs through a budgeting mechanism.
While the CCRC did not include their third goal – moving the expansion study along– in their legislative agenda, Gildea told CT Examiner that legislators at the December meeting – Osten, Cohen, state Rep. John-Michael Parker, D-Madison, state Rep. Aundré Bumgardner, D-Groton, and state Rep. Robin Comey, D-Branford – were already in support.
A 2021 bill, HB 5423, charged the CTDOT with studying and developing a plan to extend Shore Line East to Rhode Island, establish a Norwich Branch Line, extend and connect eastern Connecticut’s ground transportation systems and build new passenger train stations in Groton and Stonington. The deadline for CTDOT to submit study results was Jan. 1, 2022, but according to project managers at the September CCRC meeting, the study is still underway.
Gildea said that while the bill itself was a perfect example of the CCRC encouraging legislative support of Connecticut rail, he’d like state senators and representatives to request the results sooner than fall 2023 – the current anticipated completion date.
“I realize that the wheels of bureaucracy move slow, but I am hopeful that with legislative focus, and if the legislators get involved and advocate, they can be quicker,” Gildea said.
Osten told CT Examiner that CCRC’s hope to expedite study results was attainable with legislative support.
“It’s just a matter and function of legislators pushing the issue with the Department of Transportation on where they stand,” Osten said. “And when they see that there’s interest, they tend to move a project along.”
Osten added that a potential Norwich Branch Line extending to Massachusetts could provide essential economic benefits for her district which housed Foxwoods Resort Casino in Ledyard and Mohegan Sun in Montville. She said additional transportation would help to support each of the casinos’ goals to increase their staff by about 1,000 additional employees each in the next decade.