In a phone call on Thursday, Rep. Joe Courtney told CT Examiner that he had met with Amtrak officials for a briefing that focused on on-corridor investments and a “clean sheet” for the agency’s reboot of high-speed rail planning between New Haven and Providence.
“‘Clean sheet,’ they must have repeated that a number of times,” said Courtney, “and again, I think they are approaching this thing with a fresh set of eyes … beginning this with no preconception about the fact that there’s some intrinsic weakness in terms of the existing line.”
But in series of emailed exchanges on Thursday and Friday, Amtrak officials acknowledged that the ground rules for the new study guarantee a new off-corridor route and require the same metrics previously used to justify a controversial high-speed-rail bypass through coastal Connecticut and southern Rhode Island.
Jennifer Flanigan, a spokesperson for Amtrak, told CT Examiner that “the foundational goals remain the same but will be supplemented by goals established through robust public outreach.”
Six years ago, the Federal Railroad Administration’s preferred alternative for high-speed rail included a “Kenyon to Old Saybrook Bypass” that would have significantly impacted the towns of Old Lyme, Stonington and Charlestown, Rhode Island, but was dropped in the face of widespread public opposition.
The resulting record of decision left the thorny issue of connecting New Haven and Providence unresolved, instead appearing to throw the political hot potato to the state governments.
But in early November it was announced that Biden administration would be giving $4 million of the $5 million cost for completing the study to Amtrak as part of $16.4 billion of spending along the Northeast Corridor including significant spending toward replacing lift bridges across the Mianus, Housatonic and Connecticut Rivers.
Courtney told CT Examiner that, given his Wednesday briefing by Amtrak, it appeared that one alternative, a direct route between Hartford and Providence, was already off the table, based on a market study of the region completed in the spring.
“One thing that they have done, which they shared with us yesterday,” Courtney told CT Examiner, “was they actually did a market study of the travel patterns between New York and Boston. And because, you know, there was definitely some pretty big, loud chatter about maybe the high-speed rail should go from Hartford directly to Providence.”
Former Regional Plan Association Head Bob Yaro and Kip Bergstrom, the former Deputy Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, have been pitching a more ambitious plan, called North Atlantic Rail, that would connect Connecticut directly to Long Island and link Hartford to Providence. At one time, their plan had gained the support of departing Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, and then New Haven Mayor Toni Harp.
With new market data, Courtney said, Amtrak appeared to nix the idea of a Hartford to Providence route.
“I think the market study really squelched the notion that that was a feasible pathway, because the market studies showed that there is still high volume, passenger traffic, that still is connected to the shoreline rail pathway,” said Courtney.
But with Amtrak leading the new study, Courtney said the agency also made clear that the Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts departments of transportation were to be “active participants” in the study process, as well as the regional Councils of Government which had been left out of the previous NEC Future effort overseen by FRA.
Asked by email whether the Dec. 6 meeting with Amtrak had discussed any ground rules for the planning, Courtney’s office told CT Examiner that no parameters from the 2017 record of decision had been mentioned in the briefing.
The binding record of decision which governs the announced New Haven to Providence Capacity Planning Study, mandates that “expanding largely within or along the existing NEC right-of way is not possible and does not meet the NEC FUTURE Purpose and Need.”
But with a Hartford to Providence route unlikely, and no other solution other than the Kenyon to Old Saybrook Bypass proposed in the previous NEC Future studies, it remains unclear how the new study will satisfy both the demands for great speed and capacity along the Northeast Corridor, and the opposition to an off-corridor shoreline route.
Asked about the possibility of reviving the Kenyon to Old Saybrook Bypass, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a vocal critic of the plan at the time – once calling the idea of a coastal bypass “half-baked and harebrained” — made clear his continuing opposition to the idea.
“The proposed Kenyon to Old Saybrook bypass was a recipe for economic and environmental disaster – and I will oppose it again just as strongly if it is revived,” Blumenthal told CT Examiner by email. “While the goal was to accelerate rail travel, the plan failed to consider the impact on the people who live and work in the region. The Northeast Corridor rail system is an essential economic engine. We must continue to make it safer, faster, and more reliable. I’ll continue to fight for communities that should be heard on the shoreline and elsewhere.”
Asked about the apparent disconnect between a “clean sheet” and the requirement for a significantly off-corridor route between New Haven and Providence, Courtney said on Friday that his office was asking for clarification from Amtrak.
“Based on my introductory call with Amtrak on December 6, I was glad to hear Amtrak was ‘starting from scratch’ in their work to study ways to improve the New Haven to Providence route,” Courtney told CT Examiner. “Given the preliminary nature of my call with Amtrak, they did not share any parameters to the study or their impact on the study. My office and I are awaiting response from Amtrak’s team to understand if and how requirements set in the 2017 record of decision may inform the path forward. As I have told Amtrak, every step taken must be made in coordination with and supported by communities across eastern Connecticut.”
Asked about the apparent discrepancy between the agency’s briefing of Courtney, and responses to questions from CT Examiner, Jason Abrams, a senior spokesperson for Amtrak, drew a distinction between the goals of the new study and the prior planning process.
“The information appears to be different because these are two different topics being discussed – one with the reporter (NEC Future ROD) and one with Rep. Courtney (goals for the Planning Study). But the heart of the conversation and details are the same in both – this is a framework but is not the final process,” explained Abrams.
Courtney, who strongly opposed the Kenyon to Old Saybrook Bypass six years ago, said that his conversation with Amtrak this time was aimed in part at avoiding a repeat of past failures.
“Honestly, it was the same sort of concern – in terms of making sure this is not a repeat of FRA,” said Courtney in a call with CT Examiner. “I mean, as you know, it was a complete fiasco. The whole process that FRA employed where the NEC Futures Plan was basically designed completely in isolation from any input from the community or on the ground analysis of what that map was going to do.”
Meanwhile, the towns that were once hotbeds of opposition to the planning appear, as of yet, largely out of the loop.
In Old Lyme, newly-elected First Selectwoman Martha Shoemaker told CT Examiner the study was “on her radar,” and that she’d briefly discussed the matter with State Rep. Devin Carney and the local Council of Government.
In Guilford, First Selectman Matt Hoey appeared well-versed in the issue, mentioning conversations with Yaro, a resident of Guilford, and concerns about whether possible plans for quad-tracking adjacent to Route 146 would interfere with planning to raise the coastal road to reduce flooding.
Hoey said that no one yet had reached out to him about the New Haven to Providence Capacity Planning study, but that if the project couldn’t be stopped, he would press Amtrak to raise the existing trestles to ease access along Route 146.
“If there is an inevitability to the quad being implemented because of federal and Amtrak desire to do so and, and potentially the power to just do it – we would lobby heavily for considerations around those trestles.”
Carney, in response to a query from CT Examiner, called the revival of a bypass through Old Lyme a “non-starter,” but said he was encouraged by what appeared to be a more thoughtful approach by Amtrak.
“While I appreciate Amtrak taking a more thoughtful approach in designing rail upgrades, any potential for a return to the Old Lyme – Kenyon bypass proposal is a non-starter. As this study moves further along, I encourage Amtrak to include the local stakeholders as much as possible to ensure transparency and sufficient opportunities for public comment,” Carney wrote in an email to CT Examiner.
State Senator Christine Cohen, who heads the legislature’s Transportation Committee, and whose district includes Branford and Guilford – the towns affected by plans for quad-tracking – told CT Examiner that she was keeping an open mind, even regarding an off-corridor route.
“I don’t ever think there’s a downfall to weighing options and understanding them better, but until those are presented with timelines, costs and other implications — both positive and negative — I couldn’t say which would be on the chopping block and which would be prioritized,” Cohen told CT Examiner in email. “Fast, efficient and affordable interstate connectivity is something that residents want to see. It’s incumbent upon us to explore options to make that happen.”