Four years ago, Gov. M. Jodi Rell, citizen advocates and members of U.S. House and Senate rallied to save the sub base in Groton from closing. "Team Connecticut" succeeded. A "Team New England" is now needed to create a rail system that would link the region's major cities — and run down the center of Connecticut.
New England's governors announced Monday that they will go after federal stimulus funds to upgrade and extend rail lines. Now they must build their campaign by political leaders and the hoi polloi.
Connecticut's application seeks $800 million to upgrade the New Haven-to-Springfield rail line. The plan is to create commuter service along the route and high-speed connections from western Massachusetts and central Connecticut to Amtrak's separate Boston-to- Washington Acela service.
A key element in selling the restoration of Connecticut's main north-south rail line is its place in a system that would give fast, smooth connections from Portland, Maine, to Boston, Hartford, New Haven and New York. It's the reinvigoration of a network that thrived until the 1950s, when rail traffic moved to highways. The governors have drawn a plan that shows Washington the value of spending money that will reduce highway congestion, encourage sensible land-use patterns and cut our dependence on foreign oil.
One important element of the New England plan is creating rail links to the region's airports. Riders on the New Haven, Hartford and Springfield line could easily connect to Bradley International by shuttle from the Windsor Locks station. Trains to T.F. Green Airport in Rhode Island and New Hampshire's Manchester-Boston Regional Airport are also anticipated.
Vacation trips to the Green and White mountains or Cape Cod by rail are largely a distant memory but more easily imaginable if the infrastructure is in place. A New Yorker might get on a train in the morning and be swimming in Cape Cod Bay that afternoon. A skier could board a northbound train Friday night and be on the slopes first thing Saturday morning. That's the way it worked even before the days of high-speed rail.
The New England governors sensibly focused on upgrading major regional rail lines and on building more high-speed corridors. As these improvements are made, there will be a natural demand for restoring spur lines to the Cape, to smaller cities such as New Britain and to other underserved parts of the region.
Competition for $8 billion in federal money, however, is stiff. Rail plans in California and the Midwest are well underway.
What's needed is the kind of single-minded determination that Connecticut officials mustered in 2005 when the sub base in Groton was threatened with closing. Town and state leaders joined the congressional delegation in creating a task force that fought to keep the base open. It worked.
A similar group representing leaders along the New Haven-to-Springfield route — and in the corridors of power in Hartford and D.C. — should get the state's best arguments heard in Washington. They should work with their counterparts in the other New England states so that by the time the region's transportation officials convene for an August meeting in Vermont they can present a unified, persuasive case.
This is a unique opportunity to get our rail system back on track. It will pay to do our homework.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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