Wheels Slowly Start Turning On New Haven-Springfield Rail Improvements
By DON STACOM
December 31, 2012
Motorists are beginning to encounter brief construction delays at railroad crossings in central Connecticut, the first sign that work is under way on the long-planned Springfield-to-New Haven commuter rail system.
Contractors began digging in December alongside grade crossings in Hartford, West Hartford, Wallingford and elsewhere to install fiber optic cables for new signals and communications systems.
For commuters on the busy I-91 corridor, the work offers at least a little hope of improved north-south rail service through the state within the next few years.
The state Department of Transportation is indicating that limited commuter rail service on the line could begin by 2016, followed, quite a bit later, by high-speed — or at least higher-speed — regional service linking Washington, D.C., and New York to Boston and perhaps Montreal.
Recent history suggests even that schedule is ambitious, though.
Connecticut is hoping to create the infrastructure for a Metro North-style commuter rail system using the Amtrak line from New Haven through Meriden, Hartford, Windsor and Springfield. Much of the money would come from federal funds to establish 110-mph, electrified service along the route.
At the height of the nation's high-speed rail movement in 2009, then-state Transportation Commissioner Joseph Marie predicted the medium-speed, diesel-powered commuter service would be running by late 2014 or early 2015. Many state legislators were frustrated that his timetable was too slow.
But since then, Connecticut lost out on crucial rounds of competitive federal transit grants that could have brought in several hundred million dollars. A conservative Congress has essentially scuttled President Barack Obama's plan for high-speed rail links across the country, and is systematically slashing large-scale funding initiatives for mass transit.
Key GOP lawmakers are still willing to consider projects in the dense and heavily industrialized Northeast, where Amtrak makes money. But many in the GOP say public-private partnerships are essential, and some want Amtrak pushed out of the equation altogether.
On the national level, Amtrak and rail planners now speak in terms of a "2030 vision" for a high-speed rail system through New England and down the eastern seaboard.
With the high-speed system's debut long distant at best, can Connecticut still begin transporting riders on a mid-speed commuter system within a few years? The DOT's website for the project, http://www.nhhsrail.com, sets targets of March 2013 to finish design, late 2015 to wrap up construction and early 2016 to start running the first trains in revenue service.
Frequent commuter trains in addition to the Amtrak and freight trains on the line will require two tracks. Amtrak once had the entire line double-tracked, but ripped out the second set in the 1980s to save maintenance money. The state is preparing to reinstall a second line, at least between Hartford and New Haven, along with modern signals, grade crossing improvements, bridge repairs and drainage upgrades.
Installing the underground signal and communication cables is underway. The DOT is now issuing weekly advisories about where motorists should expect delays. This week, for instance, drivers in Wallingford may encounter brief waits to cross the tracks at Ward Street, Quinnipiac Street, Hall Avenue, Parker Street and North Plains Highway, while drivers in West Hartford should expect lane closures to allow for work on the Amtrak bridge overhead.
Transit planners say a vigorous north-south commuter system could bring new retail and housing development near stations in Meriden, Wallingford, Berlin and Windsor, and the DOT's plan is to create new stations in West Hartford, Enfield, Newington and North Haven. Advocates emphasize that Metro-North's New Haven line is one of the most economically significant mass transit systems in the world, and the Connecticut communities up and down the route are better off because of it.
For now, though, the budget of federal money and nearly $290 million in state bonding doesn't cover new station construction, double-tracking between Hartford and Springfield, or reconstruction or replacement of the massive Amtrak bridge over the Connecticut River in Windsor Locks. The DOT has pledged to work the Congressional delegation to keep seeking whatever federal aid is available in the future.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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