Stonington Head Urges Early Involvement, Local Needs for Amtrak’s New High-Speed Study

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STONINGTON —Bringing current rail service up to speed and capacity along the shoreline should be the immediate priority as Amtrak plots a new menu of investments in high-speed rail between New York and Boston, said First Selectman Danielle Chesebrough in a conversation with CT Examiner on Jan. 5. 

“Where I think local people, a lot of people, get frustrated is we’re talking about this giant [project] – multi-billions of dollars being spent in [the] longer term … but right now whether it’s Amtrak not running enough trains or Shore Line East being completely cut, why aren’t we running more trains on the existing tracks and getting more people riding it now?” said Chesebrough. “They’re trying to make it quicker and faster and more efficient but we don’t even have funding right now to run Shore Line East consistently to New London, nevermind extending it to Mystic or Westerly, which has been a request for years.” 

Chesebrough said she understood that service had been cut to Shore Line East because ridership was down, but also noted that the underlying logic was circular.

“I think one of [the state’s] studies said ridership is also significantly down because, for Shore Line East, there were so many diversions to buses and the delays were so long that of course people stopped riding it,” she said. “And then also the schedule gets decreased, people stop riding and if you can’t have a set schedule where you have multiple options in the morning and evening to get to and from your destination, you’re not going to ride it –  so it’s that chicken and egg thing.”

Chesebrough said local people had told her they’d like to see a more concerted effort to get funding in place to run the existing trains on a fuller schedule, something she said could contribute to economic growth and lower traffic congestion. 

“Even if it was just a pilot to start as we’ve been talked about, like during busier months, and again, to help with some of the congestion and issues we see in Mystic, and also in New London talking about economic growth. Have more trains that run into downtown New London – people would probably come up and go to dinner or go to the theater. But there’s just no trains that run.”

Chesebrough said that it was frustrating to talk about “these big, very expensive, much longer term goals,” that are at the heart of the recently announced New Haven to Providence Capacity Planning Study, when near-term and more affordable projects could be considered.

“We want better rail travel. But there’s a point where, is it worth both the money and investment? And then also the displacement that could potentially happen versus some of the other fixes that they’re talking about of just infrastructure improvements in the existing line that could help speed things up and make it safer and more reliable.”

Early involvement

Chesebrough also stressed the importance of early communication and involvement – which yielded positive results for the town’s viaduct project – in Amtrak’s planning for high-speed rail connections between New Haven and Providence.

“I understand a study is great and it’s important and it’s good to look at what solutions might or might not work – what might be on the table, obviously, with sea-level change, and they want to make it faster, and other [items],” she said. “That’s all important to look at but – and I think most people seem to agree – it can’t be done in a vacuum or a silo like last time. And this was a similar conversation we had with DOT about the viaduct where they were very open to it. So we’ll see how Amtrak – but hopefully through again, pressures from the federal delegation – will be receptive to it.”

Considering the earlier public opposition to the Kenyon to Old Saybrook bypass, Chesebrough also questioned why an off-corridor solution was part of the study. 

“But, why spend taxpayer money on the study, just to come up with something that we know isn’t going to work locally?” she said. 

Chesebrough said engagement with local partners and hosting community meetings “way earlier than they may even think to start,” would be essential to the success of the new rail study.

“We have a lot of different perspectives at the local level that I think would be really beneficial before they get too far down a certain path that just isn’t going to work like last time,” she said. “So they seem to be saying that they’re going to involve [the public] but it’s a big difference if you start involving at 10% planning versus 70% planning.”

Chesebrough said she was in contact with Congressman Joe Courtney about setting up a meeting in the next month to discuss the rail plan, as well as solutions for the three at-grade crossings in Stonington. 

“Our hope and our message to our federal delegation is please encourage whoever’s working on this within Amtrak for the study portion to engage us early and often throughout the planning process and really make us a partner – not just a stakeholder that gets input through a survey or we have one meeting – but really make us partners in this because I think it’s a better chance for being successful.”

Chesebrough also urged a hard look at who would actually benefit from faster rail service along Northeast Corridor given the likely impacts to local communities. 

“The goal of two hours and 45 minutes travel time between New York and Boston? Again, admirable, probably beneficial – but who is it benefiting? Who’s going to be mostly riding this and using it? And at what cost?” she said. “If we’re shaving off an hour or an hour and 15 minutes, but you have to take people’s homes or if you have to cut through an economic center or you have to disturb a downtown village, is that truly worth it? What is our gain and benefit, and how is it benefiting the residents who are potentially being impacted? That’s one thing where I didn’t see a specific focus on that I hoped we could see. 

Chesebrough said she had read CT Examiner’s recent reporting on Sen. Chris Murphy’s views on high-speed rail – his warning of the need for “displacement” to achieve the kind of high-speed rail service called for in Amtrak’s New Haven to Providence Capacity Planning Study – but she questioned the benefits and who would benefit.

She said that she believed people could accept displacement if they could see the benefit, but “if there’s no benefit for the community, and the displacement is too great, that’s when I think we get that pushback.”

It’s allowing for give and take, Chesebrough said, that would be key to getting local communities on board.

“I think people are reasonable and they understand that there’s a give and take, but they have to be part of the process. So that kind of comes back to the beginning point of really involving local residents and officials from a much much earlier stage than they usually do.” 

Chesebrough reiterated the need for early involvement.

“We’ve talked about trust factor to where you’re like, ‘Okay, you’ve already done this, and now you’re asking for feedback.’ It feels like it’s already done. Then people don’t trust it and then they get even more concerned. So I think just the earlier they can involve people from the practicality –  it’s helpful –  but also from the trust standpoint. It just makes everything better. It’s more work, but it makes it better in the long run.”