The state Department of Transportation plans to revamp Connecticut’s existing rail lines for faster, more efficient travel. But in order to do that it needs money. Lots of money.
DOT Commissioner James Redeker told a joint legislative committee Wednesday that his department has a plan, but it doesn’t have the funding.
“This is an unconstrained plan,” Redeker told members of the legislature’s Finance and Transportation committees. “So I don’t view it as a cost as much as I view it as ‘if we did it all, what would it take?’”
He added, “We’re in the tens of billions of dollars.”
Redeker discerned “unconstrained” from “constrained,” saying that “unconstrained” means the rail renovations are not in the funding plan.
“It’s something we’d like to do, someday . . . but today we don’t have the resources to pay for it,” he said.
Redeker is hoping to get funds from Metro-North, Amtrak, or the federal government to complete the rail projects.
“In the end it’s going to come down to what are the right investments at the right times that we can afford. The purpose of this is to be unconstrained so that when opportunities from high-speed rail or the federal government come about and we can go after money, we don’t have a plan that’s constrained.”
But Redeker is patient. His concern right now is not the money, but the blueprint.
“My view is, and this is really shared by all the state, let’s get together and put together our vision,” Redeker said. “Then let’s draw the line, and it’s not based on the least cost, it’s based on the most benefit.”
“If we give up today, fighting about tomorrow, then we’ve lost the argument,” Redeker said, referring to the funding issue.
He does believe working with pre-existing rails is the cheapest option.
“The rail system is what built the state, what built the country, and if it exists, returning to those places is the most cost-effective way to rebuild,” he said.
On an annual basis, Connecticut’s rail system moves 3.6 million gross tons of freight over 10 freight railroads, 3.5 million intercity rail passengers over the lines owned and operated by Amtrak, and 20 million commuter rail passengers on the New Haven Line and the Shoreline East Line.
In recent years, Connecticut’s total transportation capital program was between $658 million and $2.1 billion per year, with between $212 million and $1.6 billion coming from state bonds; $12 million coming directly from the special transportation fund; and the remainder coming from federal program funds.
It will take billions of dollars to construct the rail line Redecker outlined for lawmakers. Though expensive, this multi-billion dollar plan pleased many lawmakers.
Rep. Betty Boukus, D-Plainville, likes the completeness of the plan even though the money for it is not yet available.
“I always, always love to see a plan that includes everything and that you can pick and choose as you go along, as the opportunity arises, to be able to do it rather than work it the other way — an opportunity arises and you have to go and invent something to supplement the money,” Boukus said at the hearing.
Many shoreline-based lawmakers appreciated the DOT’s plan for the Shoreline East Line.
State Rep. Patricia Widlitz, D-Guilford, recalled a time when former Gov. John G. Rowland proposed eliminating Shoreline East in 1995. Widlitz said there was “ a cry, literally, from the commuter world along the shoreline.”
“I’m very pleased to see the priorities focus on the existing infrastructure we have,” Widlitz said. “As a shoreline legislator, I’m particularly thrilled with the expansion of Shoreline East and the expansion east.”
Although, it’ll take a lot of cash to get these rails under way, in their 200-page packet the Department of Transportation says the proposed rail system will make Connecticut a greener state.
“Rail offers a safer, greener, and healthier alternative to highway travel, one that requires 35 percent less energy per passenger-mile and generates corresponding lower levels of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions,” the DOT said in its state rail plan.
Their long-term goals are also stated in the plan: “The vision for rail transportation in Connecticut is a system that provides high-speed, intercity, regional commuter and freight services that will be a catalyst for smart growth, encourage greater mobility, promote the state and regional competitive advantage in the global economy, decrease highway and aviation congestion, reduce energy use, and improve air quality.”
Redeker said it will be “a shame to forgo a revenue stream as significant as the high-speed rail. That’s a huge influx of investment for economic growth in the state of Connecticut that really couldn’t be passed on for what it’s going to return dollar-for-dollar.”