Fairfield County leaders push back against high-speed rail proposal

Local leaders are pushing back against a plan to expand high-speed train infrastructure through Fairfield County, questioning the impact of the new rail system in smaller communities. The Federal Rail Administration unveiled a new rail investment plan for the Northeast Corridor last month, which would include a new rail bypass running between New Rochelle, N.Y. and Greens Farms in Westport.

Last week First Selectman Jayme Stevenson attended a roundtable discussion about the new rail bypass organized by U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal. Commissioner James Redeker of the state Department of Transportation and several officials from other Connecticut municipalities were in attendance as well. While the FRA’s plan is preliminary, Stevenson and Stamford Mayor David Martin criticized the decision to map out the expansions without regard to the land in question. Stevenson said that based on the proposed lines in the plan, Darien would be the most affected community along the bypass from New York to Westport.

“I am happy that [the FRA] made the decision to run high-speed rail through this part of the state,” Martin said during the meeting. “I am not happy with the lines that they drew with their crayons, running through various neighborhoods.”

Stevenson expressed her concerns with how the FRA plan would influence traffic patterns in the area and asked that the state continue to invest in both highway infrastructure and improvements to Metro North. She also requested an economic analysis of potential changes the existing rail route running through Darien. While acknowledging that the high-speed rail projects could take years or decades to implement, Stevenson pointed out that the proposal could influence private developers away from investments in Darien.

“When commercial developers see those rudimentary crayon lines on a map that may go through a parcel of land that they’re made investments in, or they’re thinking about making investments in, they’re rethinking their investments,” she said.

Commissioner Redeker said the bypass as currently proposed will not be approved or funded by the state under the current administration and the Department of Transportation will continue to pursue the Let’s Go CT infrastructure plan proposed by Gov. Dannel Malloy. Let’s Go CT calls for more nearly $22 billion in rail investments over the next 30 years and also seeks to improve service along the Northeast Corridor from Boston, MA to Washington D.C.

However, when a new administration takes office in 2019 they will have to choice of abandoning Malloy’s plan. Rail upgrades are jointly funded by individual states and the federal government, meaning that any federally-backed plan will also need to be approved by the state government to go into effect.

Amtrak, the nation’s sole high-speed rail provider, expects to roll out new high-speed trains along the Northeast Corridor in 2021. With the FRA’s planned improvements intercity express routes the trains will reach speeds of up to 220 mph, current infrastructure only allows for 150 mph. One of the stated goals of the Fairfield County bypass is to reduce travel time between New York City and New Haven. The plan also calls for upgrades to the Stamford and New Haven train stations and new stations in East Bridgeport and Orange.

Though all parties involved in last week’s roundtable discussion are invested in improving Connecticut’s transportation infrastructure, there is also an expectation that these upgrades should not come at the expense of local communities. A video of the full meeting is available through Darien TV79. U.S. Senator Chris Murphy will also meet with local advocates at the Fairfield History Museum (370 Beach Road, Fairfield) to receive further feedback on the FRA plan Thursday Aug. 24, at 1 p.m.