Feds drop controversial South County track from rail upgrade plan

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has dropped a controversial proposal to add a new stretch of railroad tracks between Old Saybrook, Connecticut, and the village of Kenyon in Richmond, Rhode Island.

The plan had been under consideration for years, and late in 2016 FRA officials announced the new stretch of track was part of their 25-year preferred plan to overhaul the Northeast Corridor, which provides rail service between Washington, D.C., and Boston.

U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, who serves on the Senate subcommittee that appropriates money for railroad funding, said the decision shows officials listened to residents’ concerns.

“Passenger rail is critical to Rhode Island’s economy and our future,” Reed, a Democrat, said in a statement. “Under this long-term plan, passenger rail service won’t bypass the state, nor will it force Rhode Islanders in Washington County to accept a new rail line they don’t want.”

The proposed new segment received widespread opposition from residents of Connecticut and southern Rhode Island. “It’s like a nightmare,” Charlestown Town Council President Virginia Lee told Eyewitness News last December.

Gov. Gina Raimondo also said at the time she would not support the plan. “It goes through conservation land. It goes through Native American reservation. It goes through municipal water supply. So we can do better,” she told Eyewitness News in January. She said she believed the proposal would end in lawsuits from environmentalists and Native Americans.

On Wednesday, the FRA announced the controversial new track was scrapped, and instead, the existing route would be modernized and improved.

“Rhode Island, not the federal government, will continue to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to determining any future rail alignments within the state,” Reed said.

According to the Record of Decision released by the FRA Wednesday, “The majority of feedback regarding the Preferred Alternative infrastructure elements expressed opposition to the Old Saybrook to Kenyon new segment, based on the expected impacts to shoreline communities, including impacts to historic resources, businesses, natural resources, and overall quality of life.”

“Feedback strongly urged the FRA to exclude the Old Saybrook to Kenyon new segment altogether from the ROD and conduct further research and outreach before making any decision on the type or location of new capacity in this section of the corridor,” it continued.

In a conference call, Rebecca Reyes-Alicea from the FRA said officials found a fundamental need to expand capacity in the stretch of rail between New Haven and Boston, but due to physical constraints, the geography of the area and other concerns, there was a “lack of consensus regarding the correct rail solution.”

Now, the new plan is calling for a studies in both Connecticut and Rhode Island to examine ways to improve service on this stretch. The FRA said those studies will be conducted by the states in conjunction with the FRA and other “stakeholders,” but the agency did not offer specifics on funding, costs or a timeframe.

The plan also calls for FRA to continue working with Rhode Island on adding an Amtrak stop at T.F. Green Airport, whose train station is currently only served by the MBTA regional service.

The FRA estimates capital costs for the proposed improvements to the entire Northeast Corridor are between $120 billion and $150 billion over 25 or more years. The future of the projects is dependent on funding and state approval of the plans.