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A Push To Re-Establish Waterbury-To-Hartford Rail Service

DON STACOM

January 20, 2009

Citing delays and high costs for key Hartford-region transit initiatives, two lawmakers are pushing harder to fast-track a different project: the re-establishment of commuter rail service to the city from Waterbury.

The state Department of Transportation has shown little interest in the idea before, but new Commissioner Joseph Marie acknowledged last week that it's at least worth exploring. He cautioned proponents, however, that he envisions Waterbury-to-Hartford passenger service as a long-term project.

"High-volume, quality commuter rail has to fit into our vision," Marie told the General Assembly's transportation committee. "There's an existing corridor that might someday be a candidate for future commuter service."

When committee member Rep. Frank Nicastro, D-Bristol, thanked Marie for saying that, Marie replied, "Be sure you include the word 'someday.'"

But Nicastro and Rep. David McCluskey, D- West Hartford, said Waterbury-to-Hartford service might prove to be an affordable way to get some rush-hour traffic off the badly congested stretch of I-84 just west of Hartford.

The DOT has already begun planning a $570 million busway that would connect New Britain and Hartford, as well as a commuter rail link from New Haven to Hartford to Springfield. But the busway has been stalled for years as the state tries to acquire enough property for it, and the Tri-City Connector has been bogged down by negotiations with Amtrak, which owns the rails.

Nicastro and McCluskey suggested that the Waterbury-to-Hartford project might be a faster fix. "The tracks are already there," Nicastro said.

Upgrading the heart of the route a 22-mile stretch of little-used freight line between Waterbury and Berlin probably would cost under $20 million, according to an executive with the company that owns the tracks.

"It's reasonably simple and easy to do you know you have 22 miles, you know how much track and ties and signals you need," Roger Bergeron, special projects vice president for Pan Am Railways, said Friday. "You're doing that within the right of way, and that doesn't require the permitting that takes so much time.

Bergeron reached the cost estimate of less than $20 million about a year ago, and noted that the price for new rail may have risen since then. But the rail line's bridges and the long, nearly century-old tunnel in Terryville would not need major overhauls to meet federal standards for passenger service, he noted.

Seventeen years ago, a DOT study concluded that Waterbury-to-Hartford rail service would run $50 million in track and right of way costs. But that was based on rebuilding the track bed to accommodate 60-mph trains, and creating enough new sidings to allow every-half-hour service. That plan also required restoring the long-abandoned rail line from New Britain to Newington, where trains would join Amtrak's New Haven to Hartford line.

Nicastro has instead suggested doing without the New Britain to Newington shortcut, and instead following the existing tracks from New Britain into Berlin, where they meet the Amtrak line.

"My numbers are based on just taking those trains coming up to Waterbury [from Bridgeport] and continuing them through to Berlin," Bergeron said.

The route used to have two tracks, so there would be room in the existing right of way to build one or two sidings to let oncoming trains pass, he said.

Nicastro said he wants the DOT to thoroughly examine the idea.

"We've got the line right there, all it needs is to be improved. The owners are all for it," Nicastro said. "This helps people in Bristol, New Britain, Waterbury, Plymouth and it gets those cars off the road."

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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