Even if the state can get permission to start no-frills, low-frequency commuter rail service between New Haven and Springfield, it might do better by waiting until it has better resources in place, Transportation Commissioner Joseph Marie told state lawmakers Tuesday.
If the state launches the service without upgrading the route's tracks and signals, it risks disappointing riders enough that they'd go back to driving, he cautioned.
"If we do that, we should go in with open eyes. The service would not be of the caliber or type you'd expect," Marie told a hearing of the General Assembly's transportation committee at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.
Legislators told Marie that Connecticut taxpayers are eager to see results after years of discussion — but no visible progress — on offering weekday commuter service linking New Haven, Hartford and Springfield. Marie, who took command of the Department of Transportation last summer, acknowledged that residents and lawmakers are frustrated, but emphasized that Connecticut can't begin the service on its own. The right of way is owned and used by Amtrak, and Marie said that track and signal upgrades are necessary before commuter trains could go fast enough to shave time off the Hartford-to-New Haven drive.
"Right now Amtrak takes 55 minutes," Marie said outside the hearing room. "You can drive it in less."
The DOT last month said it has four options for starting service, starting with the least expensive — just four round trips a day with no stations or other amenities. The most costly would run trains every 15 minutes at peak periods, which is more than the main line of Metro North. The DOT has said it can't produce reliable cost estimates until Amtrak shares technical information about the condition of tracks, bridges, grade crossings and signals.
Marie will meet with Amtrak administrators in Washington, D.C., in March to discuss what Amtrak expects the state to contribute toward capital improvements, and how the two systems could share the track.
Marie noted that residents in southwestern Connecticut have campaigned for years to upgrade service on Metro North's Danbury branch, where operations are severely limited because there is just one track and an outmoded signal system.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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