Railroad Proposal Threatens Historic Columbia Heights

The following letter was sent on behalf of the concerned property owners, residents, and families of Columbia Heights to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Railroad Administration in opposition to the “Old Saybrook to Kenyon Bypass”, and is shared with us here by the author Matt Dowling.

The Federal Railroad Administration’s proposal as stated in the December 2016 Tier 1 Final Environmental Impact Statement to straighten the railroad tracks of the Northeast Corridor Old Saybrook to Kenyon Bypass will permanently alter, denigrate and damage the environmental and socioeconomic fabric of Charlestown.

Many residents are concerned with the severe impact to our unique and treasured protected wetlands and surface water bodies, woodlands, fields, critical habitats, Tribal resources and historic farms, and we are just as concerned as others. However, we submit our comment as residents of the historic, working class neighborhood of Columbia Heights, which would be devastated by this proposal.

The Columbia Heights neighborhood is an historic community unique to Rhode Island. Constructed in 1918 as a mill village community for the Clarke’s Mill at Horseshoe Falls in Shannock, the neighborhood was hailed for its innovative design in providing modern worker housing of that era. The dwellings all reflect the sturdy craftsman style construction of the period and most have been restored. The entire neighborhood is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Many families with children reside in the neighborhood and a new playground was constructed in January in Clark Town Park at Columbia Heights. There exists a tight-knit sense of community within our neighborhood; everyone knows everyone and we all watch out for each other.

The Environmental Impact Statement details a rail re-route that transects directly through at least 20 of our historic family dwellings in this quiet neighborhood, where many of Charlestown’s working class families live. We are proud, hardworking families who are integral to the town’s socioeconomic fabric. Those remaining homes that are not demolished would have a front row seat to a 200+ mph train and be subjected to crippling property value losses.

Furthermore, approximately $6 million in federal, state and local dollars has been expended in the Columbia Heights and Shannock neighborhoods over the past two decades as part of public infrastructure improvement projects. These include the creation of a public water district, housing rehabilitation, brownfields assessment and remediation, streetscape improvements and beautification. The proposed rail project would completely nullify the benefits brought on by these investments.

The Federal Railroad Administration’s proposal would be devastating to our families’ lives, destroy a unique piece of Rhode Island history, and forever negatively alter our town’s identity. Therefore, we implore the Federal Railroad Administration to terminate the rail modification as proposed through our town.

We also request that U.S. Senators John Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, U.S. Representative James Langevin, Gov. Gina Raimondo, State Senators Dennis Algiere and Elaine Morgan, State Rep. Blake Filippi, the Charlestown Town Council and all of our residents work together and stop this proposed rail re-alignment project.

Matthew J. Dowling

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