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Idea Of Commuter Rail Service Between Springfield And New Haven Gets Boost

DON STACOM

April 17, 2009

NEW HAVEN - The long-discussed idea to create commuter train service between New Haven and Springfield got a shot of turbo-momentum Thursday when President Barack Obama announced a $13 billion stimulus package that might pay for it.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., immediately pledged to help Connecticut and Massachusetts officials try to pull in a share of the money, and a senior Amtrak executive estimated that service could begin in as little as two to three years if the funding comes through.

"I'm excited this is taking on a life of its own," said state Rep. David McCluskey, D- West Hartford, among the state's most prominent mass transit advocates. "This wouldn't be a silver bullet for the towns and cities along the route, but it could be an enormous part of reviving the Meridens and Enfields."

Connecticut and Massachusetts will be competing against nine other regions throughout the nation for a share of $8 billion in high-speed rail initiatives; other corridors range from Detroit-Chicago and Miami-Orlando to San Antonio-Tulsa. Obama's plan also offers $1 billion a year for the next five years to help upgrade the lines to handle 100-mph or faster trains.

Connecticut politicians have talked since the mid-1990s about offering commuter rail service on the 62-mile Springfield to Hartford to New Haven line, but it became a priority at the Capitol this year because of summertime gas price spikes, ever-worsening highway congestion and fears of global warming and suburban sprawl.

Amtrak and the state Department of Transportation spent years bogged down in a contentious impasse, largely over who would pay for hundreds of millions of dollars in bridge reconstruction, new signals, track upgrades and other improvements that would allow frequent, high-speed service.

Negotiations resumed last year, but Dodd made clear Thursday that he wants the pace stepped up.

"We want to have a very intense and close working relationship with you," Dodd told Joseph McHugh, an Amtrak vice president for government affairs, while holding a hearing of the Senate banking committee. "How can we cut through a lot of this? How do we get this up and running?"

Amtrak runs about half a dozen round trips a day in the Springfield-New Haven corridor, mostly as connecting service for riders bound for New York or Washington. The trains share a single track; Amtrak ripped up the second set of rails about 20 years ago to save maintenance costs. Establishing commuter service with frequent trips would require putting down a new second track; neither Amtrak nor the DOT has said what that would cost.

McHugh cited several large expenses in bringing the line to high-speed service standards: An estimated $20 million to re-deck the Connecticut River bridge in Enfield, and $40 million to $45 million to replace the viaduct in Hartford.

"We're doing track improvements right now, so we can check that off. The next thing would be double-tracking, and deciding, 'Do you electrify?'" McHugh testified.

Possibly the largest cost would be installing an overhead power system to offer electric service, if that option were chosen. McHugh estimated that cost at about $300 million. Electric-powered trains build speed much faster than diesels, so they could run longer at the optimum 110-mph rate between stops deeply reducing the commute time, he said.

Neither McHugh nor state Transportation Commissioner Joseph Marie gave public estimates for the full-scale project, which also would include building several new stations, improving existing ones and expanding parking. One transportation official has said that a preliminary DOT draft put the price at $800 million.

By mid-day Thursday, transit advocates were calling on lawmakers and governors in Massachusetts and Connecticut to aggressively pursue a share of the stimulus money.

"This will generate short- and long-term jobs, encourage transit-oriented development and relieve congestion on traffic-clogged I-91," said Ryan Lynch, senior planner with the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

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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