New Utility Right of Way in Fairfield and Bridgeport Spurred by CTDOT Plans for Faster Rail Service

Catenaries near Greens Farm, just west of proposed changes in Fairfield and Bridgeport (CT Examiner)

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United Illuminating told CT Examiner that its efforts to move transmission lines off of railroad catenaries on Northeast Corridor in Bridgeport and Fairfield came at the request of the  Connecticut Department of Transportation, which wants the rail overhead cleared as it looks at ways to speed up trains.

The state’s second-largest electric company is asking for approval for the fifth and final part of a plan to replace the 25-mile transmission line from West Haven to Fairfield.

United Illuminating told CT Examiner that the company’s goal is to replace equipment holding its wires on top of the railroad catenary structures, not necessarily to create a new utility corridor.

The company assessed the equipment along the line in 2018, and said it found heavy corrosion on some of the catenary structures from the 1910s, and corrosion and damage from the electrical equipment installed in the 1960s. The transmission line is the “backbone” of electric service for UI and for the electric grid across New England. 

UI manager of transmission projects Shawn Crosbie told CT Examiner that weather in the northeast can wear down metal equipment. And with the existing structures deemed to be at the end of their useful life, the company has received approval from the regional grid operator ISO-New England to replace it. 

But instead of simply replacing the infrastructure where it has run on top of the New Haven Line for about 60 years, the company is proposing to move the line onto monopoles on private property adjacent to the rail line. The final section proposed on a 7.3-mile stretch from Bridgeport to Southport would require taking 8.6 acres of easements and has drawn vocal opposition from neighbors and elected officials in the region. 

Simply replacing the lines where they are would sidestep the need for these easements, but Crosbie said the state Department of Transportation does not want the lines strung on the corridor any longer.

“They’re trying to look at possible upgrades to their system, and those upgrades require possible construction on those catenaries,” Crosbie said. “We wouldn’t be putting lines when you’ve got to do construction, and that’s been communicated.”

The Connecticut Department of Transportation did not answer several queries by CT Examiner for information about plans on the corridor, or how UI’s existing infrastructure would affect those plans. 

But in its written comments to the Siting Council, the department said that the existing lines would interfere with future projects on the rail corridor, and would “continue to hamper” the department’s ability to maintain railroad equipment.

“In fact, CTDOT would prefer [UI move off the catenary structures], as it aids in our maintenance of the traction power system and wayside equipment, by not having to request UI transmission line outages,” according to CTDOT recommendations to the Siting Council.

CTDOT told the council that there are “several efforts” to shorten trip times, improve service and enhance stations along the New Haven Line. To increase speeds, the department explained, it would have to add new catenary structures, track sidings, additional bridge spans and monitoring equipment.

The department advised the council that it wouldn’t object to UI’s proposal for moving transmission lines to new monopoles about 25 feet from the existing catenary structures, but the department encouraged the company to move the lines as far as possible from the railroad right of way.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation separately opposed undergrounding the lines, a proposal popular among neighbors, warning that underground lines along the corridor would interfere with existing infrastructure. The department advised the Siting Council that given the age of the railroad, which dates back to the mid-1800s, every excavation would need to be hand-dug down to four feet, adding time and money and impacting operations on the rail line.

Crosbie said that, where possible, UI is attempting to keep any new monopoles within the existing right of way, but especially along the final section, portions of the track sit alongside retaining walls, preventing the company from installing new monopoles in the existing easement. The company also needs to tie into substations off the right of way by a fraction of a mile, he explained, and in Southport the company needs to connect with the Eversource line.