Plenty of Questions But Few Answers On Rail Project
March 1, 2017
PROVIDENCE — State senators got few answers about a proposal to expand the Amtrak rail line in Rhode Island during a Feb. 28 conference call with federal officials.
The public meeting was held to assuage fears about the portion of the NEC Future project that runs between Westerly and Kenyon, a village in Richmond. Sen. Dennis Algiere, R-Westerly, said he was worried about environmental damage to aquifers, farmland and historic villages in the segment of the project called the Westerly Bypass.
Officials from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) insisted that environmental concerns must be addressed. The project, however, is only in the conceptual phase, they said. An environmental impact report was issued in December. FRA is reviewing public comments, and a record of decision for Tier 1 is expected in the coming months. The process takes the same course for Tier 2.
In the second phase, the FRA will determine design, construction and cost for specific projects along the entire route. Public workshops will be held and public input gathered.
During the recent Statehouse meeting, FRA officials had no answer when asked if the state or the municipalities along the route would be asked pay a portion of the $130 million project.
“We don’t know exactly know how the program will be funded,” said Brian Rodda, an FRA community planner.
The FRA also couldn’t say if land acquisitions would be necessary, but noted that the use of eminent domain would be determined by each county.
The goals of NEC Future are to increase the number of passenger trains and shorten travel time along the busy 457-mile Northeast rail route. The project also aims to upgrade rail infrastructure, such as overhead power lines. In all, the project aims improve the overall reliability of a train system that moves 750,000 passengers daily.
In Rhode Island, the proposed upgrades include three tracks and one freight track between Kenyon and the Port of Davisville in Quonset Point; four tracks would operate between East Greenwich and Warwick. A new station would be built in Pawtucket. Station upgrades would happen at T.F. Green Airport in Warwick and in Kingston. A new two-track segment would be built between New London, Conn., and Kenyon.
The Westerly Bypass would reroute tracks through Grills Preserve in Westerly and through Charlestown’s Francis C. Carter Memorial Preserve and Amos Green Farm. New tracks would rejoin with an unused rail bed in the Great Swamp Management Area in South Kingstown.
Wetland filling could occur in Indian Cedar Swamp in Burlingame and in the Great Swamp Management Area. Blasting and trenching are also possible.
A Drop the Bypass opposition movement has garnered support from Gov. Gina Raimondo and other politicians, and from the Narragansett Indian tribe.
The NEC Future project began in 2012, and approved projects are expected to be completed on a piecemeal basis through 2040. Transportation experts believe the project will not likely progress in the near term given President Trump’s intention of cutting domestic spending and the chronic underfunding for train infrastructure.
“To shave a few minutes off of rail service for the amount of money that’s being spent perhaps it’s not the best use for this proposal,” Algiere said. “I do ask that you go back and come up with a better proposal on this bypass.”
As I said in the previous posting, often the DC bureaucrats send the wrong people for the wrong purpose to meetings they should be amply prepared for. In this case, I think the powers at FRA decided to dazzle the locals with obfuscation. They didn’t realize that, as Senator Algiere characterized his constituency, the locals are intelligent and understanding of what they are facing. When answers are so long that you forget the original question, you are probably being snowed. The audience recognized that and it would behoove the FRA to do a better job of selecting the level of personnel appropriate for their meetings.
As electric trains are far more energy efficient and less polluting than alternatives for intercity travel, there is societal need for better rail service and this will require both quicker trips and enhanced capacity. The main threat is not the proposed RI bypass which has no reasonable prospect of ever being funded, but the lack of funding for rail improvement, especially by the anti-environment Trump administration that has already pulled funding for shovel-ready rail improvements in California. Perhaps all Amtrak service is at risk from the zealots now running Washington.
However, official plans for long term improvement should be analyzed and concerns raised. State Senators had a right to expect better answers rather than bureaucratic evasions. While not-in-my backyard objections are always to be expected, it is hard to see how a new alignment in RI can be justified with so little time saved at huge cost and environmental damage. It would be wise to consider some minor curve straightening and some additional tracks that expand capacity on the existing alignment. However I think it is important to separate that from the section in eastern CT where the shoreline route has slower curves, some commuter trains, bridges that have slow speeds and severely restrain capacity, and is vulnerable to sea level rise. Doing nothing there is not an option despite nimby opposition to almost anything that can be proposed.
The public was not allowed to comment at the Senate event, I hope there will be an opportunity to do so in the future.