Amtrak bypass still something to worry about? It depends on who you ask — ecoRI News

By CYNTHIA DRUMMOND/ecoRI News Contributor

CHARLESTOWN, RI — A U.S. Department of Transportation’s “Providence to New Haven Capacity Planning Study” has local officials questioning whether the original plan to run railroad tracks through sections of their city and other towns in Rhode Island and Connecticut might not be dead after all.

The study is part of the Northeast Corridor 2035 Plan, or “C35,” a 15-year plan to guide investment in rail service in the Northeast.

C35 describes the plan, which is estimated to cost $130 billion, as the first phase of the corridor’s long-term vision outlined in the Federal Railroad Administration’s NEC Future 2017 plan, which includes “significant service improvements NEC Rail for existing and new riders, on commuter rail networks and on Amtrak.

In 2016, Charlestown officials learned, by chance, that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) had released its Level 1 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on a plan to straighten railroad tracks in the northeast to accommodate high-speed rail service. The plan was not met with widespread enthusiasm.

The FRA had sent letters to affected towns and the Narragansett Indian Tribe in 2015, seeking feedback on the draft HIA, but according to a blog post about the Citizens Alliance Political Action Committee plan from Charlestown, there was no specific mention of new leads being made. via Charlestown or other nearby towns.

“Most of these governments have no recollection of receiving communications from the FRA,” the message read. “The letter does not say that new rails and a new railway line are proposed in your community. When no comments came from one of the most affected towns, it should have suggested to the FRA that the local community and the local stakeholders were unaware of and not engaged in the review process.

The nasty surprise included in the plan was the Old Saybrook to Kenyon Bypass, which would have moved rail traffic straight through Old Saybrook, Connecticut, Westerly and Charlestown, bisecting neighborhoods, nature preserves and historic farms. Towns and Narragansett Indian Tribe officials fought the plan, and the decision record, released in 2017, omitted the bypass.

But the omission did not mean the bypass was simply gone, and the Charlestown Citizens Alliance warned that the decision leaves the door open for a study that could resurrect the bypass.

The alliance’s blog post published after the decision reads: “The July 12, 2017 ROD calls for a study that could possibly bring back the bypass. We will remain vigilant throughout this study process to prevent the resurrection of Bypass.

In a bid to learn more about FRA’s intentions, City Council Speaker Deborah Carney spoke last August with Amtrak Chief Executive William J. Flynn, who said the The most likely route for a high-speed railroad from New Haven to Providence would be along the Interstate 95 corridor.

Carney, who said she was put in touch with Flynn by a mutual acquaintance in Charlestown, acknowledged that while there was no guarantee that the original bypass plans that would have cut the city in two would not be revived, she felt reassured that I- Route 95 would be preferable.

“They are doing the feasibility study and analysis, so there is no concrete plan at all, but [Flynn] said that if they were to go ahead with anything, it would be most likely to either parallel Route 95, like the northern part of the state, or improve the existing line that runs along the southern coast – where she is now.

Peter Alviti, director of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (DOT), represents the state on the FRA’s 18-member Northeast Corridor Commission (NECC), which studies rail demand and capacity in the corridor northeast railroad from New Haven to Providence.

Alviti and DOT Intermodal Programs Chief Stephen Devine met in November with Charlestown officials, Rep. Blake Filippi, R-New Shoreham, and Sen. Elaine Morgan, R-Hopkinton.

Alviti told the group that the NECC would require a study of future ridership demand on the route from New Haven to Providence before a decision is made. (The DOT did not support the originally proposed bypass between Old Saybrook and Kenyon.)

DOT spokesman Charles St. Martin said in a recent emailed statement that his agency expects more public consultation this time around.

“Yes, RIDOT recently met with Charlestown officials regarding this proposal,” he said. “We told them that we were aware that Amtrak was retaining the services of a consultant to conduct initial market research only to determine demand for higher speed service first. This effort will begin soon and will include a strong public participation component.

St. Martin also noted that “Rhode Island’s position remains the same as in 2017, when the state indicated its opposition to the Charlestown bypass.”

What still annoys some Charlestown officials, however, is the FRA’s continued lack of response to city inquiries.

In August 2021, at the request of City Council, City Administrator Mark Stankiewicz wrote a letter to FRA Acting Administrator Amit Bose, requesting more information regarding the New Haven to Providence study.

After receiving no response to the first letter, Stankiewicz sent a second letter on December 10, which said, in part, “Given the limited information available and the absence of any communication from the FRA, we are in a dilemma of how to ensure that Charlestown receives timely information and is able to convey our comments and concerns regarding the New Haven Capacity Planning Study to Providence.

Charlestown Planning Commission chairwoman Ruth Platner, who was not appeased by Flynn’s statements, said she did not expect the FRA to respond.

“I’m not surprised they’re not responding, but I think it’s important for the city to ask the question,” she said. “The thing is, they took the [Old Saybrook to Kenyon] circumvent the decision, but they haven’t replaced it with anything, and the whole railroad plan is based on the assumption that there will be huge job growth in the major cities – in Washington , Philadelphia, New York and Boston, but it’s not Rhode Island and it’s not Connecticut. High-speed rail has to connect these big cities, and they want to do it, one way or another.

Platner said she thinks the pandemic-related changes that have allowed many Americans to leave big cities and work from home will impact the study.

“I think what’s happened now, because of the pandemic, there’s kind of a wait, to see what that means for growth. Won’t cities grow? she said.

Another factor to consider, Platner said, is the I-95 corridor’s proximity to the coast and, therefore, its vulnerability to sea level rise.

“It’s a nice ride, and it’s just along the coast, and the water is right there. The tracks are going to be under water, so they have to do something, and the problem has to be solved, and it’s going to be resolved with some sort of realignment away from the coast,” she said.

Carney said his concerns were largely allayed after his conversation with Flynn and meeting Alviti.

“In our conversations with Peter Alviti, and also William Flynn, it doesn’t sound like Old Saybrook to Kenyon is going to be revived, but I understand where people are coming from,” she said. “You know, if it’s their property that’s affected, obviously they’re worried about it, but I’ll say Director Alviti kind of reassured us, you know, saying ‘It’s not in the 10-year plan .'”

Platner, however, warned affected cities to remain vigilant.

“The City of Charlestown needs to be involved, so we can protect the people and the environment here,” she said. “What we don’t want is for a plan to be created that we are not aware of.”

The FRA did not respond to several requests for comment.

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