Facing steep cuts to Shore Line East this fall, the Connecticut Department of Transportation proposed bus service rather than trains at a presentation on Wednesday night of a study to pitch big ideas for extending rail service to Norwich and Westerly, Rhode Island.
Elise Greenberg, a project manager for the department, told attendees that the study considered shorter- and longer-term strategies including ground transportation and rail service for the area. Among the findings? Increased bus service could be implemented as a standalone option for the region’s transportation needs – at a far lower cost than the expansion of rail.
“The shorter term strategies are bus service solutions that are designed to make bus service more frequent, to speed up bus service, make it more direct, and to make connections between major employers as well as between the major housing areas and major employers,” said Greenberg. “Now those shorter term strategies or transit strategies could stand by themselves and be the solution, or, in the future with additional demand, commuter rail service may be possible in the region.”
Greenberg told attendees the public information sessions would not address the state’s deep cuts to service cuts to Shore Line East.
The purpose of the $2.3 million study ordered by the legislature in 2021 was to investigate the feasibility and market for extending Shore Line East to Westerly; for establishing a new passenger rail line from New London to Norwich; for establishing new train stations in Groton and Stonington Borough; an alternate station in Mystic; and connections with other grand transportation.
The study showed that estimated one-time capital costs for implementing additional service on Shore Line East between New London and Westerly could be $245 million or more, and developing new service from New London to Norwich could cost $635 million or more, according to a Department of Transportation brochure.
In contrast, estimated one-time capital costs for bus service were estimated at $9 – $10 million.
“The service levels achieved by potential future rail service along the Thames River Corridor could be matched via transit solutions independent of pursuing commuter rail service. Raising SEAT’s level of service along the Thames River corridor could enhance connectivity for current and future residents, employees, and visitors, and could be more cost- and schedule- effective to implement,” according to a Department of Transportation brochure.
Within the study area, the Southeast Area Transit District, or SEAT, operates 21 fixed bus routes, three on-demand bus services, two inner city bus routes, plus there are four ferry routes, and Bike Ped options, said Greenberg.
During the virtual session Q&A, an attendee asked if the transit feasibility study advocated for bus transit options above the construction of rail in the Thames River Corridor.
Greenberg answered that the study is proposing “a number of bus transit as well as rail transit strategies and the bus transit strategies could be implemented much more in the short term than the rail, which would be a much much longer term proposition.”
She said the study also found that the bus transit strategies “really do satisfy much of the short-term as well as the long-term demand in the region for transportation options.”
“So while the bus could be implemented with rail in the future, it could also be implemented as a standalone option and really satisfy a lot of the region’s transportation needs. That being said, rail could potentially be viable in the longer term, but it is something that would take a much larger timeframe to implement.”
The study included a market analysis of the need for public transportation. Greenberg said the study area was a mix of urban, suburban and rural communities with the highest population densities in Norwich, Groton and New London – and that these municipalities “exhibit higher proportions of ethnic diversity, lower average household income and increased poverty levels in comparison to their neighbors.”
Norwich, Groton, New London and Montville were also designated in 2022 as distressed municipalities by Connecticut’s Department of Economic and Community Development,she said.
“These indicators signal that these communities could potentially benefit the most from expanded access to transportation, transit oriented development and other growth opportunities,” Greenberg said.
Public comment on the feasibility study can be emailed to DOTplanning@ct.gov until Oct. 20 .