Transportation

Everyone Not On Board with Plan to Straighten Rails

Some environmentalists concerned about impacts to nature preserves, open space and farms

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The Federal Railroad Administration, about a week before Christmas, released its final environmental impact statement regarding the straightening of Northeast Corridor tracks, from Washington, D.C., to Boston, during the next few decades.

Impacted communities, including Charlestown, South Kingstown and Westerly, R.I., and Old Lyme, Conn., have 30 days to respond. The comment period is open until Jan. 31. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has estimated the cost of its proposal at nearly $130 billion, plus an additional $2 billion annually to operate. Northeast Corridor (NEC) states will be expected to pay part of the cost, and the project can’t happen without approval from the corridor’s eight states.

The proposed new railroad path would cut off an estimated 45 minutes of travel time between New York City and Boston, according to the FRA, by straightening out curves that currently exist in the tracks.

Both public and private property could be impacted, including some sensitive areas.

The proposed path of the new Northeast Corridor railroad through the Rhode Island towns of Westerly and Charlestown has some officials and residents worried. (NEC Future environmental impact statement)

The proposal calls for rerouting the tracks through Grills Preserve in Westerly, and through Charlestown’s Francis C. Carter Memorial Preserve and Amos Green Farm. The new tracks would rejoin the old rail bed in the Great Swamp Management Area in South Kingstown, where a third rail would be added to increase railroad width by 50 percent, according to NEC Future.

Some wetlands could reportedly be filled in Burlingame and the Great Swamp Management areas, and in Indian Cedar Swamp. The project also calls for the possibility of blasting and trenching.

The massive rail project proposal has some activists and lawmakers concerned about potential environmental impacts and cost.

Gregory Stroud, executive director of SECoast, recently told The Connecticut Mirror he’s no fan of the plan.

“A  $100 billion dollar infrastructure project shouldn’t be planned in secret and announced by surprise, on a Friday (Dec. 16), just nine days before the Christmas holiday,” he told the newspaper. “This sets a terrible precedent, not just for NEC Future, but for all of the infrastructure projects planned for towns across Connecticut over the next two decades. This isn’t how you announce a good plan, or a plan with real public support.”

At a Dec. 16 press conference in Hartford, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said “this concept and plan, just to reassure people in Connecticut, is simply not happening,” according to the same Mirror story.

Other environmentalists and officials in both Connecticut and Rhode Island have noted their concerns. In a Dec. 19 e-mail to ecoRI News, a Rhode Island planning board official, who wished not be identified, wrote, “The proposed rail line appears to cut through state and private properties including the middle (of) the Francis Carter Preserve … this would make it dangerous for wildlife and people to use and negate its value. Wildlife and important flora will be affected.”

In a Dec. 21 email to ecoRI News, Kristen Castrataro wrote that the proposed track changes would impact the entire state. The Richmond resident noted that FRA’s environmental impact statement indicated that 11 Rhode Island cultural resources and historic properties would be impacted.

Castrataro also noted two other concerns: the proposal would impact an additional 200 acres of prime Ocean State farmland; and, of the eight states and the District of Columbia named in the plan, Rhode Island would have the highest acreage of parkland — more than 50 acres — “converted to a transportation use.”

NEC Future is a comprehensive planning effort to define, evaluate and prioritize future investments in the Northeast Corridor. The FRA launched the initiative in February 2012, to consider the role of rail passenger service in the context of current and future transportation demands.

Amtrak’s Stephen Gardner, who is in charge of the corridor’s business operations, told The Associated Press that the plan affirms the railroad’s “long-held view that rebuilding and expanding the Northeast Corridor is essential for the growth and prosperity of the entire region.”

The 457-mile NEC — anchored by D.C.’s Union Station in the south, New York’s Pennsylvania Station in the center and Boston’s South Station in the north — is one of the most heavily traveled rail corridors in the world, according to the FRA. The NEC is shared by intercity, commuter and freight operations, and moves more than 365 million passengers and 14 million car-miles of freight annually.

While improvements continue to be made, the FRA says NEC faces serious challenges, with century-old infrastructure, outdated technology and inadequate capacity to meet current or projected travel demand.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., is a proponent of the plan and was against Providence not being included in the project.

“One of the key points we’ve made emphatically is that Providence station has to be a key part of the Northeast Corridor and that’s been accepted by the secretary of transportation and everyone else,” Reed told WPRI Eyewitness News earlier this month. “It has to be an integral part because it’s important not only to Rhode Island but to the whole region.”

Reed is the top Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee that allocates Amtrak funding.

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  1. There are ways to support high speed rail development in the NE and NOT trash communities throughout coastal Connecticut and western Rhode Island. I’d urge the RI Congressional delegation to take a closer look at the accumulation of impacts to the landscapes and historic resources that make western Rhode Island such a distinctive place, and start expressing a concern that getting high speed rail "right" requires not trashing communities that are targeted for new routes and tracks.

  2. I disagree with these environmentalists.

    The amount of wetlands that will be preserved by building effective rail lines is much greater than what would be destroyed, because not having effective rail in the Northeast is part of what helps motivate highway expansion projects like the one Connecticut proposes along I-95, or the one that RIDOT is proposing near the Viaduct on the same. Rail would prevent these types of projects, and would also help prevent the need for parking lots.

    Environmental review processes tend to be strenuous for projects like bike paths and railroads, which fall under federal and state review laws, even though these projects do more good than harm. This is a counterproductive campaign.

    One concern I’ve heard that doesn’t seem to be addressed here, but which I think is legitimate, is that some of the land that this proposal goes through is on sovereign American Indian reservations. I don’t think that should mean that the project doesn’t happen, but it is the responsibility of planners to meet with the representatives of those reservations and make appropriate changes to any plan to address concerns, or to otherwise compensate the nations for their land. I’d like to see the project go through, but with the communities affected appropriately negotiated with about details.

  3. James makes some good points, but rail improvements always seem to make easy targets for opponents as there are relatively few users of the trains as compared to far more numerous motorists determined to improve their infrastructure no matter what it does to the communities (as in Routes 6/10, Route 95 thru Dawley State Park…)
    However, I don’t think opponents of improving the rail line have much to worry about. The $130 billion cost is almost completely unfunded, the new administration coming in won’t care about the environmental advantages of rail, and may not care much about New England that didn’t vote for them. Any $$ available will have to go for more essential expensive projects such as a Hudson River rail tunnel, Baltimore tunnel replacements, and improving the older parts of the electrification systems. The chance of any new alignment around here seem negligible, we will be lucky to preserve the Amtrak service we have now with the creatures coming in to rule.

  4. A question that I’d like to hear answered: does the change in route allow habitat improvements in the longer, less linear sections that would no longer be used?

    The total length of the new route is shorter. Would the old track be removed, impediments to various species removed, and could/would habitat fragmentation therefore actually be reduced in any important ecological areas?

    Answering this would require analysis, and cannot be answered without study.

    • The existing sections of the NEC would be used for freight and slower trains. Charlestown would go from 2 rails to 4 about 4000 feet apart. There would not be any abandoned rails in the Old Saybrook to Kenyon Bypass.

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