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With Federal Decision Nearing, Southern New England Towns Push Back Against Rail Plan

Ryan Caron King
The marsh on the Lieutenant River near the historic section of Old Lyme. The FRA proposed running a rail line through this area, but was met with pushback from the community.

The Federal Railroad Administration is working on plans to bring more high speed rail to the Northeast Corridor. It’s the busiest stretch of passenger rail in the nation that spans from Washington, D.C. to Boston.

Over 50 miles of track could be laid down across the coast of southern New England.

But opponents have said high speed rail would have serious impacts for the coastal towns it would go through.

When you look at the historic houses of Old Lyme, Connecticut and the nearby Lieutenant River, it’s easy to picture colonial New England as it was centuries ago. But it’s also easy to hear the noise of busy traffic passing by on I-95.   

Greg Stroud of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation said that this part of town, which was an artist's colony in the early 20th century, has seen its share of impacts from the nearby highway. Despite that, he said artists still come here to draw inspiration from what the shoreline might have looked like before the industrial revolution.

"It is remarkably intact -- a historic district of 18th- and 19th-century houses," Stroud said. "And behind the historic district is a marsh, which is important both in of terms of its ecology, and also because it’s the subject matter of the American Impressionism movement."

But Old Lyme’s marshes and historic buildings are now in the path of a rail line that the FRA is proposing to build from here to Kenyon, Rhode Island, about 30 miles away.

To allow trains to go faster, the new rail line would bypass the jagged coast of Connecticut and avoid the sharp curves the current rail line has. But Stroud said those curves are there for a reason.

"We have historic towns built around old transportation," Stroud said. "They are built around the railroads. Every curve that they want to get rid of is there for a reason. It’s there because there’s a historic town at the curve, or there is a marsh or a beautiful area at that curve. New England is full of hundreds and hundreds of these."

Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
The John Sill House in Old Lyme was built in the early 1800s. Advocates are rallying against plans for a rail bypass that would go through the historic section of the town. One of the early plans included a bridge that would fly over the house.

The FRA first proposed sending a new, less-curvy rail line over part of historic Old Lyme on tracks elevated 40 feet in the air. After pushback from town officials and residents, the FRA said they’d tunnel underneath instead.

"We have a historic opportunity to shape the future of our transportation system and ensure that the Northeast continues to thrive. But we need your help and feedback to identify a preferred alternative," said Rebecca Reyes-Alicea of the FRA in a recording addressed to the attendees of a public forum in Hartford, Connecticut last year. The FRA was looking for public input on their plan, and several people from Old Lyme came to to speak out against the bypass.

Following a social media campaign launched by Greg Stroud, hundreds of comments from Old Lyme residents poured in -- almost a third of the comments the FRA received in total across the Northeast Corridor.

Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Greg Stroud of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation.

But later in 2016, Stroud’s group found out through a Freedom of Information Act request that the FRA had already identified a preferred plan while they were still getting feedback from the public.

"They were just very underhanded about getting the information out there," said Kim Coulter, who runs a four-generation cattle farm in Charlestown, Rhode Island. She could lose her property to the bypass.

Officials in her town found out about the bypass about a year after people in Old Lyme did. Coulter said she wishes the FRA notified her personally when they first started drafting plans for the rail line.  

"When we do anything -- we have to be totally transparent," Coulter said. "And I’m just a little farm. Our feet are held to the fire on a daily basis. But then the federal government can come in, and without warning, rip the rug out from under you? No. No, no, no. Not in this day and age. This isn’t the wild west anymore."

"I mean, you have to ask the question: is it worth destroying New England in order to save 25 minutes between New York and Boston?" said Toni Gold, a longtime urban planner and activist in Hartford, Connecticut. Gold said infrastructure planning is more complicated in New England than it is out West where there’s lots of open space.

Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Toni Gold in her house in Hartford, Connecticut.

"It’s very historic. Practically every one of Connecticut’s 169 towns has a town center and a town green and a Congregational church," Gold said. "That’s the nature of it, that’s the pleasure of it, that’s what we love about it. It can be very frustrating. But there’s no way you can run a four-track, grade-separated rail line through that without doing major damage."

Gold said she thinks the FRA should instead expand rail service between New Haven and Boston on existing tracks.

The FRA said they’d consider the feedback they’ve received before they release their “Record of Decision” -- a final blueprint for the corridor. That decision is expected in June. 

In a statement, the FRA said that it’s up to states, cities, and railroads to decide whether they’ll move forward with the projects in that blueprint.

Read the FRA's full statement below:

The NEC Future Record of Decision is not an all or nothing document. The states, cities, railroads and others will take this recommendation and decide whether to move forward with the different projects that will build a Northeast Corridor for the future. The precise location of new or additional infrastructure is not determined as part of NEC FUTURE. Each project in each state would require additional project-level planning work, including environmental analysis and engineering, in advance of any future construction. Any improvements that will be included in the NEC FUTURE ROD, like other infrastructure projects in this country, will require significant funding and partnership with states and local communities before any specific projects are advanced.

Heather Brandon contributed to this report.

This report comes from the New England News Collaborative, eight public media companies coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Ryan Caron King joined Connecticut Public in 2015 as a reporter and video journalist. He was also one of eight reporters on the New England News Collaborative’s launch team, covering regional issues such as immigration, the environment, transportation, and the opioid epidemic.

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