Eastern Connecticut the Odd Man Out as Powerhouse Gathering in Stamford Pitches High-Speed-Rail

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STAMFORD — Eastern Connecticut was the odd man out in a powerhouse gathering of federal, state and local officials on Monday pitching faster and more frequent rail service, and billions of dollars of new investment, for the Northeast Corridor.

“It’s not partisan. It’s not even geographic, in the sense that it’s defined by only big city mayors, or any sort of specific factor — if you’re connected via a railroad, which almost every community in the United States is actually, whether they know it or not, there’s been a resurgence and focus about how rail can make a difference and be part of a community’s mobility strategy,” explained Mitch Warren, who moderated the event and serves as executive director for the quasi-public Northeast Corridor Commission.

Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner pitched a renewed focus on rail as a generational change, in a nation that still has more miles of track than any other country on earth, even if it is mostly used to move freight after passenger service was largely abandoned in the 1960s.

“I don’t think it’s a mystery, right?” Gardner told the audience of about 75 people. “Aviation and flying has gotten worse. Everyone agrees with me there, right? Driving is no fun, right? I mean, how many folks have kids under the age of 30 who want to drive, who are really pumped about driving? Right? It’s just a real change, and we see a huge interest in how rail can be a part of communities.”

On stage, Gov. Ned Lamont, his commissioner of transportation, Garrett Eucalitto, and Stamford Mayor Caroline Simmons, were joined by Gardner, Federal Railroad Administration head Amit Bose, and Metro-North President Catherine Rinaldi in notable show of power and support for improved high-speed-service through Connecticut.

At the same time, absent was any mention, or discussion, of how or why this conversation ended in frustration in 2017, with a high-speed-rail masterplan for the Northeast Corridor that left unresolved an alternative to the corridor’s winding 19th-century-era route through coastal southeastern Connecticut and southern Rhode Island.

That effort, dubbed NEC Future, provides the menu of options for how roughly $16.4 billion of new federal dollars — and any other federal funding over the next three or four decades — can be spent on the corridor between Washington D.C. and Boston, except for the ninety-odd miles of unresolved corridor between New Haven to Providence.

A new study launched in November by Amtrak intends to resolve that.

Called the New Haven to Providence Capacity Planning Study, the study will recommend a new off-corridor route that meets goals for time and capacity included in the 2017 NEC Future Record of Decision. Whether that means a return to the controversial idea of a bypass through coastal southeastern Connecticut, or a direct route between Hartford and Providence is not yet clear, though a recent interview with Congressman Joe Courtney hinted that the direct inland route may already be off the table.

After the last attempt to resolve the issue with a proposed Kenyon to Old Saybrook Bypass sparked overwhelming public opposition across southeastern Connecticut and southern Rhode Island, public support for the new study may make or break any plans to significantly speed up train travel east of New Haven in the coming decades.

Gardner told the assembled audience in Stamford that high-speed rail, unlike mid-century interstates and highways, would respect the fabric of local communities.

“We already have assets in the right place. We already go mostly where folks are. So, when you think about building in a way that respects communities that builds the fabric of community, rail’s got a way to do it. The interstate era is over, we need to enunciate that probably more clearly. But we haven’t been adding lane miles, we’re not going to add a bunch of lane miles, we’re not going to do what [Interstate] 95 did, which was bulldoze through the heart of communities. We have to figure out ways to create capacity and fluidity within the fabrics of our communities. And that’s what rail is so good at doing,” said Gardner.

But on Monday in Stamford the handful of attendees from southeastern Connecticut arrived uninvited, including Old Lyme First Selectwoman Martha Shoemaker, who could be seen taking notes longhand as speaker after speaker pitched the benefits of high-speed rail and praised President Joe Biden for delivering a multi-year multibillion dollar investment in the Northeast Corridor.

In 2016, Old Lyme was the epicenter of opposition in southeastern Connecticut to plans for high-speed-rail that included a rail bypass cutting across the town’s National Register historic district at a height of 40 feet.

Nine years later, John Noyes and Dini Mallory, co-chairs of the Old Lyme Historic District Commission sent off a letter on Jan. 22 seeking assurances that any outcome of the New Haven to Providence Capacity Planning Study will respect the fabric of the historic town.

In an email to CT Examiner, Mallory and Noyes warned that any attempt to revive plans for a “railway bypass through or near the Historic District would pose an existential threat to the District.”

The New Haven to Providence Capacity Planning Study is expected to conclude in late 2025 or 2026.

After this story was published, Amtrak contacted CT Examiner to correct the expected date for the completion of the New Haven to Providence Capacity Planning Study. The story has been updated.