Legislators Turn Out From Eastern Connecticut to Reverse Cuts in Shore Line East

Zell Steever, Chairman of the Groton Resiliency and Sustainability Task Force, urges the legislature's budget committee to fully fund Shore Line East (CT Examiner)


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HARTFORD — At a public hearing Friday, legislators from southeastern Connecticut pressed for the restoration of funding for the Shore Line East service after steep cuts last year in the biennial budget, saying that the reductions would harm an area of the state with limited transportation options and singular economic needs. 

After dramatic drops in ridership during the pandemic, Gov. Ned Lamont proposed and state lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a budget in 2023 cutting Shore Line East to 44 percent of its 2019 service levels.

But on Friday legislators and advocates argued that the cuts were damaging the economic outlook of towns along the shoreline and hampering their ability to create housing for people needing access to a transportation corridor. 

In a written testimony submitted by State Rep. Christine Conley, D-Groton, State Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London and State Rep. Aundre Bumgardner, D-Groton, the lawmakers said the area had struggled with parking shortages that would be made worse with the growth of Electric Boat in Groton and expected tourism when the National Coast Guard Museum opens in New London. 

“At present, the hunger for increased services is not being fed. Shore Line East continues to operate on a reduced schedule, while bus routes may stop service before 11 pm and do not operate on Sundays. Significantly, there is no rail connection between Norwich and the other urban centers, New London and Groton,” the testimony read. 

The legislators also referenced a feasibility study undertaken by the Connecticut Department of Transportation that considered options for expanding rail service in the eastern part of the state, including extending the rail line into Rhode Island, creating a new line running between Norwich and New London, and building new stations in Stonington and Groton. 

But Zell Steever, a member of the Connecticut Public Transportation Council and chairman of the Groton Resiliency and Sustainability Task Force, told CT Examiner that expansions to the rail line couldn’t happen until it was restored to pre-pandemic levels of ridership. 

Steever told the legislature’s budget committee on Friday that cuts to Shore Line East would ultimately result in more cars on the road, increasing costs on the highway and making it more difficult for the state to curb greenhouse gas emissions. He also said that many of the people who worked along the train route needed to get to work in person. 

“You don’t build submarines at home. You don’t test drugs at home, you test them in laboratories. And if you work for the United States Navy, or you’re enlisted in the United States Navy, you must go to work, or you must go to your boat. So, travel is a required element in what people have to do,” said Steever. 

Steever noted that last year the number of trains serving the eastern shoreline dropped from 23 to 16 not long after the state purchased a number of new electric rail cars. 

Jim Gildea, chairman of the Connecticut Public Transportation Council, told the committee that the state needed to restore regular rail service if they wanted commuters to take advantage of it. He used the Waterbury train line, which was given seven additional trains and a 44 percent increase in budget. It is now the only train line that has surpassed the number of commuters that were using it pre-pandemic. 

“Service builds ridership. It is not the other way around,” said Gildea. 

In other testimony submitted to the committee, members of the public told legislators the reduced services interrupted their work schedules, forcing them to leave in the middle of the work day or have to wait until late at night to take a train home.

Workers in New Haven or New York City have the option of taking a 4:30 p.m. train, a 5:30 p.m. train or waiting until 8:45 p.m. to travel back home. 

Ivoryton resident Susan Feaster, founder of the local group Shore Line East Advocacy, told legislators about a student from Westbrook who was unable to drive and was using the train line to get to her classes at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. 

When the Shore Line East cut back its service, Feaster said, the student had to drop out. 

“Because it was cut so drastically, she could not cobble together the trains to get her home in time and the day would have been too exhausting for her. So in her junior year, she had to quit college,” Feaster told CT Examiner. 

Feaster said that people in her group — which has about 100 members — use the train for a wide variety of reasons. 

“It’s not just commuters. It’s people that are using this on a daily or biweekly [basis], going back and forth for life situations — whether they’re going to work, they’re going to events, they’re going to the doctors or whatever,” she said. 

State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, a chiar of the Appropriations Committee, said that she “vehemently disagreed” with the decision to cut Shore Line East funding in the biennium budget last year. 

“We are hiring 5,000 people a year to work at Electric Boat. We have 10,000 people that are working at our two tribal nations in a variety of ways. We have Pfizer … to say that this is something we should not be putting money into is not only unrealistic, it is not a good economic move for a section of the state that needs to move people around on small country roads without any ability to address the issues,” said Osten. 

State Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, the other chair of the budget committee, said the service reductions would also have an effect on tourism. 

“We’re shutting off the access to Rhode Island and Massachusetts by shutting down the system. If anything, we wanted it to expand and go further into that area so that we have more tourists getting to the shoreline,” said Walker. 

And State Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, said she was concerned about the loss of rail service on people who need to go to work in New Haven and who are already operating in a low-income household. 

“Many of these people don’t have the high income that some of the other regions in the state may have, and they depend on the rail for their livelihood,” said McCarty. “I’m fearful that we’re going to really be doing some harm to a whole segment of people that absolutely rely on the rail.” 

In addition to affecting work schedules, local officials say that the schedule cuts also harm transit oriented development along the shoreline.

Steever noted that there had been “huge efforts” in New London, Groton, Stonington and Westerly, RI to cluster zone around the communities as a prelude to new developments centered around transit. But he said that communities weren’t going to rezone if there wasn’t the promise of regular train service. 

State Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, said during the hearing that in New London, the town had built over a thousand new units, and that Groton was in the process of building at least 300 new units. 

He said the loss of the rail was isolating members of the community who wanted to travel to other parts of the state. 

“It limits or stops our communities from going back and forth. Especially our youth that travel up to New Haven or to Hartford for school or for college,” said Nolan.

Matt Hoey, first selectman of Guilford, said in testimony that Guilford has 85 new units being built within half a mile of the Shore Line East station. He told CT Examiner that he’d heard about students who previously attended schools in New Haven who could no longer go there because of the lack of transportation. 

In addition to the 85 new units, he said, Guilford has built an additional 300 housing units in town, including a 100-unit affordable housing project less than two miles from the station. 

Sam Gold, the executive director of RiverCOG, which oversees three towns directly served by Shore Line East, said his organization received a Thriving Communities grant from the federal government for investment in transit oriented development around their three train stations. He added that there was currently a $400 million proposal for mixed-use development at the Westbrook Outlets mall, which is in walking distance of the station. 

Gold said that if the committee did not plan to restore the funding, they should at least bring in other options for public transit. 

“Today if you were to attempt to make one of the canceled Shore Line East trips between New London and New Haven by local bus, it would take you about three hours on three buses with two transfers,” said Gold. “This is not a trip that most people can make.” 

Amtrak trains also run along the shoreline, but State Sen. Martha Marx, D-New London, pointed out that Amtrak tended to be much more expensive than Shore Line East.

“The train is the best way to travel, and I’m just so disappointed,” said Marx. “New London did exactly what we were told to do — a thousand units in downtown New London — and then they did not keep their promise of funding Shore Line East.”

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.