- Associated Press - Thursday, July 13, 2017

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - With the contentious proposal for high-speed rail through shoreline Connecticut communities off the table, state and local officials expect to now focus on locally acceptable ways to upgrade the congested line and plan for the future.

“I believe that we know what’s best for our state and we’ll work on a good solution,” Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsynder said Thursday.

The Federal Railroad Administration on Wednesday announced it has dropped the proposal to build new high-speed railroad tracks through parts of Connecticut and Rhode Island after local complaints that the massive project would devastate historic neighborhoods, marshlands and tourist attractions. Instead, the FRA is calling on Connecticut and Rhode Island to work with the federal agency to complete a New Haven-to-Providence, Rhode Island, capacity planning study and identify infrastructure changes and improvements needed to meet long-term service and performance objectives.

That was welcome news to Greg Stroud, an Old Lyme resident who formed an opposition group to the FRA’s proposal and is the director of special projects at the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation.

“What we’re hoping is, if the states take a larger role, that we should get a better process with better engagement of the local communities,” he said.

Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, said there are “wise alternatives” to what he called the FRA’s “hare-brained, half-baked idea” that will improve rail safety, reliability and speed.

“They involve strengthening and straightening tracks, better rail cars, other kinds of structural improvements and they avoid the massive new bridges and tunnels and bypasses that will never be built because we don’t have the money,” he said. “It’s that simple.”

Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, a Democrat, praised the FRA for updating its 30-year plan for modernizing the Northeast Corridor, saying it now “leaves it up to Rhode Island to determine how best to address capacity and environmental concerns within the state.”

The FRA said it expects the capacity planning study also will examine future rail services to Springfield, Massachusetts, any changes to the Hartford-to-Springfield line, and improved service between Providence and Boston. In the meantime, the FRA said modernization and improvement of the tracks between New Haven and Providence can proceed before the capacity planning study begins.

Connecticut DOT Commissioner James Redeker said his agency first plans to examine ways to improve service frequency and travel times between New Haven and New York City. The FRA’s updated blueprint calls for improvements including additional railroad tracks, station and system upgrades, and the replacement of aging moveable bridges. A state-funded, $3 million consultant’s study is already underway. Redeker said DOT hopes to identify short-term initiatives in the next two years, followed by longer-term infrastructure upgrades.

“We’re sort of actually ahead of the game in terms of moving forward in Connecticut,” he said, adding how there is not an immediate rush to work with Rhode Island on the New Haven-to-Providence stretch of the rail line because there isn’t money available to make the improvements.

In the meantime, Reemsynder said her community, which led the fight against the FRA’s high-speed rail proposal by Connecticut shoreline municipalities and southeastern Rhode Island towns, is taking a collective sigh of relief. Even though it was questionable whether expensive and far-reaching ideas such tunnels and elevated tracks would have ever come to fruition, the blueprint still had an adverse effect on tiny Old Lyme, such holding up home and property sales.

“As long as that plan was on the map, it was doing harm to our community,” she said. “Everybody had a big question mark about the future. And when it was lifted, the whole black cloud was lifted.”

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