Don’t let Northeast Corridor get away

August 2, 2018

An effort by U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal to get an extra 1.9 billion for Amtrak and the Northeast Corridor. An estimate from Murphy’s office states that riders on that line are responsible for a 300 million for the Federal Railroad Administration’s “state of good repair” funding partnerships with state governments anywhere in the country. The backlog on those is estimated to have a price tag of $28 billion.

The hefty numbers are not surprising, given that the Boston to Washington passenger rail, which includes Amtrak and several commuter lines, sends hundreds of trains daily through the most populous, productive “megalopolis” in the country.

The FY 2019 appropriations are to address problems on lines that must continue to carry the load while the Federal Railroad Administration shapes its plans to make trains faster and more reliable and a better alternative to cars — and to back away from rising seas, which in some places along our own shores are predicted to threaten the existing NEC railbed.

To that end, after a public outcry over the “preferred alternative” it first presented, the FRA now has  a “selected alternative,” a “corridor-wide vision for the NEC” to bring the existing railway into good repair and improve capacity and service to a point that will work well through 2040.

Note, however, that the good-repair plan extends from Washington to New Haven and from Providence to Boston. It does not include infrastructure improvements from New Haven to Providence. Our neighborhood is getting a capacity planning study instead.

It could be that the electrified rail lines that pass through eastern Connecticut and southern Rhode Island will fall short in the study for two important reasons: potentially lower commuter ridership than competing inland routes and the necessity of pulling back from the shore.

The priorities of the Federal Railroad Administration are not necessarily the priorities of the state and local governments of Connecticut and Rhode Island nor those of the defense-military entities, tourism destinations, transportation hubs and other businesses on the shoreline.

That the FRA is not fixing the infrastructure in this region seems like a fiscal strategy of not spending money on facilities they don’t plan to use. And if interstate rail is not supported, how would the lines be kept in good repair for commuter rail?

The Day has repeatedly reminded those who opposed the FRA’s plan to put rails through the heart of Old Lyme and Mystic tourism areas and to cut off New London’s transportation hub that defeating that unwise plan was only Step 1. Planning continues, with or without a local voice.

When the Pentagon announced its intention to close the Groton submarine base in 2005, the local and state response was two-part: repeat loudly and often how important the base was to the region; and add value to its infrastructure with improvements supported by the state. The base, as everyone knows, stayed open and continues to improves its facilities, including its electricity grid.

There may be ideas to make the eastern Connecticut-southern Rhode Island stretch into an option too good to ignore, such as improving access to T.F. Green Airport or creating a spur for commuter rail to take cars off Interstate 95. Such schemes need to be aired and debated by all the competing interests in the two states, with the ultimate goal of a cohesive place at the table with the FRA.

Because that can’t happen quickly it has to start immediately. The Day once again urges Connecticut’s elected officials and stakeholders in the future of commerce, tourism and the environment to get aboard as they did to keep the sub base. The Northeast Corridor is another major asset that defines and moves this region. Don’t let it go another way.

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