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Northeast high-speed rail planning picks up speed

The News Leader

July 26, 2010 3:39:25 AM PDT
Transportation officials are working to keep plans on track for high-speed trains running through Connecticut, western Massachusetts and Vermont.

The three states have received a total of $160 million in federal economic stimulus money for track improvements to link high-speed trains from New York City to New Haven, Conn., and north to Hartford, Conn., Springfield, Mass., Vermont and Montreal.

Officials have scheduled a meeting in Hartford on Thursday to update the public on where the project stands.

Backers say the regional project can reduce traffic on Interstate 91 and promote economic development by bringing high-speed passenger rail service to inner cities.

"The whole idea is to treat this as an important New England north-south initiative," said Timothy W. Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission in Springfield, Mass.

Massachusetts has received $70 million in federal money to upgrade deteriorated tracks from Springfield to Vermont. The tracks now carry freight trains at speeds no faster than 10 mph, but track improvements by 2011 should boost speeds to 60 mph and 70 mph, Brennan said.

Train service for years has been diverted east to Palmer to avoid the run-down tracks, he said. Transportation officials want to rebuild those tracks to provide north-south passenger service to population centers in Chicopee, Holyoke, Amherst and Greenfield, Brennan said.

Stephen Delpapa, transportation supervising planner at the Connecticut Department of Transportation, said the state will spend $40 million in federal stimulus money to add a second track from the Meriden-Berlin town line to Newington in central Connecticut.

The project is being designed and expected to be completed by the end of 2012, he said.

Commuter rail service on the 64-mile corridor linking New Haven, Hartford and Springfield ended about 40 years ago with the demise of the former New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, better known as the New Haven Railroad. Amtrak has owned and controlled the train tracks since 1971.

Spokesman Cliff Cole said Amtrak supports the funding grant requests and is involved in the planning.

Trini Brassard, assistant director of operations for the Vermont Agency of Transportation, said the state agency is spending $50 million in federal money to rebuild tracks, replace cross ties and make other improvements for high-speed trains from the Massachusetts line to St. Albans in northwestern Vermont.

The improvements are expected to shave a half-hour off the 191-mile trip from the Massachusetts line to St. Albans, to about four hours, Brassard said.

Plans call for eventually creating a connection to Montreal, but security issues are obstacles for trains crossing from the United States into Canada, she said.

A management professor at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., said big questions remain unanswered, such as cost and whether motorists can be persuaded to swap their cars for a train seat.

"There are broader issues about the viability because at the end of the day budgets have to be met," said Mary Meixell, associate professor of management.

She said she has not seen data on whether demand is sufficient to support the project.

"It's not so clear to me that it's been completely thought through and justified," Meixell said. "It's not so clear this proposal is going to do enough to compel people to get out of their cars."

Parking facilities at stations also must be included in new rail plans and connections, such as bus transportation, must be available for commuters to reach points not accessible by train, she said.

In addition, funding may be available for construction, but not necessarily to run the high-speed rail system, possibly leaving the states on the hook for long-term operating costs, Meixell said.

The project is part of a multibillion-dollar Obama administration plan to build high-speed rail in the United States.

It is being financed by $8 billion in stimulus funding and a recent budget allocation of $2.5 billion and more to come if Congress approves future spending requests, said Rob Kulat, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration.

He compared the massive project to construction of the Interstate highway system in the 1950s.

"We're not making any bones about it. It's going to take billions more," Kulat said.


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