Blumenthal Not On-board Reed’s Train – He’s Taking A Different Track
The following report was provided by Ruth Platner who attended the meeting described below.
Connecticut’s US Senator Richard Blumenthal held a town meeting at the Old Lyme Connecticut Town Hall at noon on Thursday, December 22 to discuss the Federal Railroad Administration’s plan for the “Old Saybrook to Kenyon” bypass.
There were over 100 people in the audience and also representatives from different Connecticut environmental and historic preservation groups such as River COG, Florence Griswold Museum, Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, and others. Two citizens from Charlestown RI traveled to attend the meeting.
The entire Connecticut Congressional Delegation is united in opposition to the route changes proposed by the FRA for the “Old Saybrook to Kenyon” bypass. This is the section of the proposal that includes Charlestown and Westerly, but their focus of course has been on the negative impacts to the land and people in Connecticut.
The first speaker was the Selectwoman for Old Lyme, Bonnie Reemsnyder. She spoke of the investment, in time, money, and love that has been put into the preservation of their communities. They have invested in open space, in their environment, in their river, and in historic preservation. This plan will destroy much of what they have worked to protect.
Senator Blumenthal then spoke of the impressive turnout on a weekday just three days before the holidays. He said it was not chance that led the FRA to publish the plan so close to Christmas when they hoped we might be distracted. He was heartened that such a tactic wasn’t working and that people were still engaged. He knows that the citizens care and he promised that they will be heard.
He said the aerial structure that had been proposed to go over the Old Lyme historic district had now been changed in the plan to a tunnel. He showed a figure of the boring machine that would be used to bore a tunnel under the town. The tunnel would cost tens of billions of dollars and would likely be dropped in favor of the overhead train at the point they began construction. The tunnel was described as a bait and switch.
The Senator said the Draft EIS (Charlestown was never notified of the Draft EIS process) was a “non-starter, hair brained and half baked“. He said the Final EIS is now “baked”, “but still hair brained”.
Blumenthal emphasized that Tier 1 is a new step and everyone should comment again. The Connecticut towns sent thousands of comments, nearly all negative, about the Draft EIS. (Charlestown was excluded from that process since the FRA didn’t notify us that there was a plan to review.) Blumenthal said comments are still very important and everyone should be sending comments using the email and postal address for NECFuture. (We provide those addresses below)
Senator Blumenthal then made the point that there are a lot of great ideas in the FRA plan. An investment in rail is very welcome and overdue. But the cost of this plan is too high in terms of the environment and damage to historic communities. He said if only some of the money proposed for the FRA plan were invested in present rail structures, bridges, and rails we could achieve faster and safer rail travel now and not have to wait years for the FRA plan. If we were investing and improving now and we could achieve high-speed rail without the damage to the environment and communities.
He offered the examples of two road crossings that the train is still making in Stonington, putting citizens lives at risk with only seconds to get out of a stalled car before a train crosses the road. A bridge over the Connecticut River where the train must slow down to 35 miles per hour because of the poor condition of the bridge. These are changes we should be making now. The FRA plan is an unaffordable vision that lacked creativity. If they had a more practical vision we could get investment in rail in the right places and in the right way and we could get it a lot sooner.
He said one of the things they are asking for now is a 60 day extension in the time to make comments. The release of the plan just before Christmas does not provide enough time for communities to fully study the plan and find all the deficiencies in the plan. Also it doesn’t give enough time to get the word out to citizens that they must comment again to the FRA.
He said this proposal must be countered and combated, it must not be allowed to be approved as a plan.
The Senator then made the point that the Connecticut communities are not alone, that the entire delegation is working together to protect them from the planned “Old Saybrook to Kenyon” bypass. He then asked for comments.
Questions From the Audience – Answers From Senator Blumenthal
He was asked about changes ahead under a new President Trump. The Senator said he planned to sit down with incoming Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and discuss all these issues we were talking about today. He will be speaking to her both privately and publicly as he is on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
When asked what citizens can do, he reiterated that we need to get our comments in, that the comments are very important. (See addresses below)
A citizen suggested that the plan could be stalled for years if there was a lawsuit now. Blumenthal, the former Attorney General for CT., said that a court would likely find that the issue was not ripe until there was a final decision.
One of the Rhode Islanders in attendance asked if the Senator would talk to RI’s Senator Jack Reed and explain that Charlestown doesn’t have to be sacrificed for Providence. The Senator agreed that whatever plan is approved will serve Providence and that he would be happy to talk to Reed who he respects and serves with on the Committee on Armed Services. He agreed that turning down the Tier 1 Final EIS was not a threat in any way to high-speed rail service to Providence and that Rhode Island and Connecticut should be working together to overturn the plan’s “Old Saybrook to Kenyon” bypass. Senator Blumenthal said he would also talk to RI Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.
Several Realtors in the audience supported a statement that property values had fallen in the path of the line drawn in both the Draft and Final EIS. Banks are reacting to the plan and were somewhat reluctant to write mortgages. There is an economic shadow cast by the rail proposal that is affecting people’s pocketbooks.
An audience member asked if loss of property value would be part of a cost benefit analysis. The Senator said this would be part of the Tier 2 EIS. Unfortunately the property loss is happening now before the rail is even built.
There was a question about the process going forward. Blumenthal said right now this plan is blocked by lack of funding. It will sit on a shelf until there is money, but he said they might get more creative with funding, such as an infrastructure bank or a public/private partnership. We shouldn’t assume it would never get funded.
He was asked about alternatives. He said the best alternative is to upgrade the existing rail.
The Senator then wrapped up his remarks by saying we need an investment in infrastructure, our roads and bridges are deteriorating and we need to have high speed rail and we need to make these investments and improvements in the right place and the right way. But in the near term we need to stop this bypass plan. It will be too late to stop this at Tier 2.
He said an “EIS can be challenged if it is deficient. The sooner we stop this bypass the better. This route should never happen – it is urgent to stop this.” He said this is a test case in how we are going to invest in infrastructure. So far this has been a bad process.
Comments should be submitted to NEC FUTURE team by email or post:
U.S. DOT Federal Railroad Administration
One Bowling Green, Suite 429
New York, NY 10004