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Connecticut Freight Lines See Federal Aid Passing Them By

DON STACOM

July 18, 2010

HARTFORD

The state won't learn until mid-September whether it will get a slice of $600 million in new competitive federal transportation grants, but the share for Connecticut's freight rail system is guaranteed zero.

State transportation officials said last year that the freight lines need nearly $110 million in federal aid to stay competitive, but they skipped the rail system altogether when recommending projects for a new round of Investment Generating Economic Recovery grants on Friday.

The Department of Transportation said that a tightly focused approach gives Connecticut the best chance of landing the so-called TIGER grants. That requires axing requests by seven freight railroads that want to modernize their tracks, ties, signals and bridges, the DOT said.

Kevin Nursick, a department spokesman, said that after consulting with federal officials, the DOT decided on an entirely new strategy with this second round of funding. It is endorsing applications from five cities Hartford, New Haven, Waterbury, Stamford and Bridgeport for local highway and transit projects, and submitting no requests of its own.

"The shotgun approach isn't going to work. We're taking what we learned and applying it," said Nursick, who maintained that the DOT is committed to freight rail improvements.

But the state's freight rail operators, who had hoped to share nearly $110 million in TIGER funds last winter, say it was a mistake to not even try for federal aid now.

"It's ridiculous, in my book," said A.J. Belliveau, owner of the Central New England Railroad. "Wasn't the whole idea of TIGER to bolster private-sector jobs? Freight rail does that. There are no long-term jobs from just endlessly paving roads."

Charles Hunter, government affairs director for Rail America, called the DOT decision "disappointing." His company owns the New England Central, which was ready to go with a $5 million overhaul of its 56-mile-long New London to Massachusetts tracks. The project would link the shoreline to expanding freight yards in Massachusetts, and also could reduce train traffic on the New Haven-to-Springfield main line, where Connecticut hopes to create commuter and high-speed passenger service in the next few years.

"We had our 20 percent matching funds ready. A lot of shippers are very interested in using this line," Hunter said.

Belliveau's company leases state-owned tracks to run freight between Hartford and north Bloomfield and between Enfield and South Windsor, and he said he's already spent significantly to upgrade them. Last year, the DOT applied for more than $41 million in TIGER funds to replace the tracks, calling the work "a critical piece of the repair needed for the statewide freight rail network."

"We're serving Home Depot in Bloomfield on rail that was rolled in 1896," Belliveau said. "And these are state tracks that we resurrected from abandoned with trees growing [on the railbed]. Come on, we take 25,000 trucks a year off Connecticut highways and we can't get any help?"

One of the chief freight rail advocates in the General Assembly said two weeks ago that he's concerned that the DOT appears to have no comprehensive plan for freight rail. That makes no sense, said Rep. David McCluskey, D-West Hartford, because New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and Pennsylvania are all modernizing their tracks to modern industry standards capable of handling 286,000-pound cars with double-stacked containers.

The DOT's 2009 TIGER application appears to support that. In it, Bureau Chief James Redeker told federal officials: "Numerous upgrades and improvements are still necessary to make the overall system economically viable for the future. In some cases, urgent repairs and upgrades are needed in order to provide a more cost-effective, safe, and sustainable means of efficiently transporting goods." The DOT also said at the time that the work would create 2,200 jobs and foster business development along the lines.

But Connecticut included those jobs with a slew of proposed bridge and highway projects in its 2009 TIGER bid, and was rejected across the board. The Obama administration distributed $1.5 billion among 41 other states; Connecticut and just eight others went away empty-handed. The loss was a political embarrassment for Gov. M. Jodi Rell, the DOT and the congressional delegation.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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