After years of rolling along without public opposition, the proposal for Springfield-to-New Haven commuter rail service is taking some hard bounces in Wallingford.
More than two dozen residents applauded at a public meeting Thursday night when critics declared the system would be an unwelcome, overly expensive intrusion into their community.
Minutes later, though, a bigger share of the audience clapped when another speaker declared that Wallingford should embrace the project as the foundation for a downtown renaissance.
"Take a walk around - how well is downtown looking to you right now?" Gail DeLucia told the audience at a forum sponsored by the state transportation department. "I'm in favor of this, I'm hoping it brings some vitality. We have to look to the future instead of tearing down every proposal."
As Connecticut's transportation department draws closer to starting major construction, it is bracing for tough questions in communities up and down the 62-mile route: When will the new trains run? How will they affect local traffic at grade crossings? Will the fastest of Amtrak's trains really go through towns at 110 mph? Where will commuters park? What will the redesigned stations - all with pedestrian overpasses and elevator banks - look like?
The DOT plans a season of community meetings like the one in Wallingford to address local concerns. Project Manager John Bernick said the questions and answers will vary from town to town, but emphasized that the state isn't looking to force through cookie-cutter solutions. Architectural styles of parking garages, for instance, can be customized to fit in with each community's preference.
The concept of starting Metro-North-style commuter service along the I-91 corridor is hardly new; House Speaker Christopher Donovan frequently points out that legislators were already talking about it when he was a freshman in the mid-'90s.
But talk was mostly all that happened until 2009. That year, the Obama administration's plan for a national network of high-speed trains re-energized state legislators and the congressional delegation; the federal government has since committed about $190 million for the project, and Connecticut has agreed to bond up to $280 million more.
Bernick conceded that the budget is only enough to upgrade Amtrak's existing line between Hartford and New Haven. With modern signals, two tracks and new trains, the route would have departures every half-hour during weekday peak periods. North of Hartford, service to Springfield would be less frequent until the state lands another $197 million in federal funding.
As recently as two years ago, then-Commissioner Joseph Marie of the DOT was assuring legislators that commuter service could start by 2014. Bernick's latest estimate is that design work will stretch through 2013, although groundbreaking for a new network of underground signal cables could happen next year. Commuter service could start in 2016, he said, with additional upgrades and expansions through 2030.
In the meantime, the DOT plans to meet with homeowners and merchants from towns along the route. It is promoting the project as a potential economic development windfall for communities that have stations, since they'd get an easy, low-cost way to reach high-employment areas in Fairfield County and New York City. Over the long term, Amtrak hopes to use the corridor as part of a high-speed connection linking Boston, Montreal and Manhattan.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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