The New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line is chugging along ...
Gregory B. Hladky
January 12, 2010
It took two months longer than anyone expected, but the state Bond Commission last week finally approved $26 million for a project considered critical to the future of the proposed New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter rail line.
The $26 million is being put up primarily so Connecticut can qualify for another $64 million in federal matching funds for the rail plan. State Transportation Commissioner Joseph Marie said he expects the feds to make a decision on that matching money in late March or early April.
Marie is hopeful the long-delayed action on the money "sends a very strong message" to President Obama's administration that Connecticut is serious about getting this project going.
"The state of Connecticut is in the game. We're willing to put our money where our mouth is," said state Rep. David McCluskey, a West Hartford Democrat and a member of the legislature's Transportation Committee.
For the past few months, the mouths of a number of Connecticut officials have mostly been used to jabber at each other about why the money wasn't approved in October.
Lawmakers claimed they weren't getting enough information about how the money would be used, and they were already pissed off about past problems getting the state Department of Transportation to explain what was going on with vast amounts of mass transit funding. DOT officials insisted they'd given plenty of details about the project to legislators.
The impasse led to the rail funding being pulled off the bond commission's October agenda. Gov. M. Jodi Rell then canceled the next scheduled meeting in December because of budget worries. The lengthening delays began to worry a bunch of folks.
McCluskey and others, including U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, believed the feds were looking at that state money as a key indicator. State Sen. Eileen Daily, D-Westbrook, said last week Dodd told her "he viewed this money as very necessary" to getting federal funds. Dodd quickly put out a statement welcoming the approval.
The bond panel was also busy pouring out more state mass-transit dollars, including $19.4 million in funding for construction of an access road and temporary parking space for a new Fairfield commuter rail station, and $6 million for an automated safety control system to make sure Metro-North trains slow down and stop where they're supposed to.
The state money for the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield project will pay for several sections of "double track" along the 62-mile route — an understandably necessary feature if you don't want trains running into each other.
Connecticut officials want to tap into the $8 billion in federal money Obama's administration has set aside for high-speed rail projects. (The "high-speed" part is a little misleading. If the state gets everything it wants, the top speed of trains between Springfield and New Haven would be 125 mph, with average speeds hovering around 60 mph. The current average speeds of Amtrak trains along that route is about 40 mph, according to information filed with the feds.)
No one is sure how much the total cost of the high-speed rail would be for this section. The last DOT estimate was around $725 million. The start date for improved service is also something of a moving target, with 2015 being the most optimistic date for getting some upgraded commuter trains rolling along the line.
A few years ago, Gov. M. Jodi Rell was so fed up with DOT delays on mass transit programs she wanted to bust up the agency.
"I think we've passed that stage," Rell said Friday. "I believe we're moving. ... Thank you, Commissioner Marie, for the job you're doing."
But what will she say if that federal cash doesn't come through?