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Waterbury To Hartford Rail Line Would Be Costly, Official Says

DON STACOM

May 21, 2009

BRISTOL - The New Haven to Springfield commuter rail project is on the fast track, but don't expect to see passenger trains running from Waterbury to Hartford any time soon, the state's transportation chief told disappointed business executives Wednesday.

"It's not something you'll be taking to Hartford 12 months from now," Joseph Marie said at a chamber of commerce breakfast meeting. "I want to build rail lines. They make sense ... but this one will take building consensus, and that takes longer than construction."

Bristol, New Britain and Plainville political leaders have been pressing the state to revive passenger service along an old freight line, saying the idea fits with Connecticut's goals of reducing I-84 congestion, cutting greenhouse gas emissions and promoting "smart growth" and transit-oriented development.

Pan Am Railways, which owns the line, has estimated that it would cost $52 million to bring the tracks up to federal standards for passenger service. But Marie said that after inspecting the route, he's convinced the expense would be far higher.

"To say it needs an overhaul is an understatement. Nothing on that line is salvageable, not a piece of infrastructure is usable," Marie told the audience.

Marie said, "I was glad I was wearing a hard hat" when he went through the one-third-mile-long Terryville Tunnel, a nearly century old structure that Pan Am's occasional freight trains pass through on the Waterbury to Plainville stretch of the route. Pieces of the concrete lining have fallen over the decades, and it's unknown what improvements the Federal Railway Administration would require before approving passenger service through the tunnel.

"And the federal government won't wade in [with aid] unless we have a business case what the ridership will be, what the return on investment will be," Marie said.

Michael Nicastro, the chamber's executive director, said Bristol and surrounding towns are eager for the economic development that commuter rail can bring, and he said train service could spur revitalization of the17-acre downtown site of the former Bristol Centre Mall. Plainville Town Manager Robert Lee listened, along with Rep. Betty Boukus, D-Plainville, but Waterbury business and political leaders who've shown little or no interest in the idea so far didn't attend.

State Sen. Donald DeFronzo, D-New Britain, who co-chairs the General Assembly's transportation committee, said legislators will move forward with plans to commission a $250,000 study of whether commuter service on the route is feasible. DeFronzo and others have said that establishing a rail route is more sensible than going forward with the $570 million New Britain to Hartford busway that Marie's agency is designing.

"We have to look at the whole thing in a regional way. Rail is on the ascent in Connecticut," DeFronzo said.

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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