You’ve got to admire tenacity and passion in the face of 30-miles-an-hour winds and some of the coldest temperatures we’ve seen this season. But such is the stuff railroad buffs are made of.
Almost 100 people turned out at the historic train depot in Canaan last Saturday to urge Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the General Assembly to embrace the idea of restoring passenger rail service to northwestern Connecticut. Ironically, passenger service through the region was discontinued in 1972, 100 years after the vintage station was built.
State Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Lakeville, sees an opportunity here. When confronted with the idea of spending tens of millions of dollars — or perhaps hundreds of millions — to upgrade the deteriorating Housatonic Railroad freight line up to passenger rail specs, the Malloy administration essentially yawned, and mostly for good reason.
Like just about everyone in state government who’s looked at the situation, Malloy and his Transportation Commissioner, James Redeker, say they like the idea of passenger rail all the way up to Pittsfield. Massachusetts last year purchased the rail right-of-way from Housatonic Railroad for some $12 million and set aside more than $100 million for the passenger rail project, but Connecticut, which already owns the tracks from Danbury to the state line and whose cooperation is essential, has other priorities.
For an incomplete refresher course on the state’s transportation expenses: we’ve just completed a $570 million busway that connects New Britain and Hartford; we have an ancient but crucial train bridge in Norwalk that keeps getting stuck in the closed position; a New Haven-Hartford-Springfield high-speed commuter rail line, which is currently under construction and to which the state has committed hundreds of millions of dollars. This is say nothing of our bridges and roads, which the White House recently judged to be the worst in the nation.
So spending big bucks to become flyover country for rich New Yorkers traveling north to spend money in the storied Berkshires and enjoy Tanglewood and Canyon Ranch hardly makes sense in the current economic environment.
But Willis and railroad enthusiasts in the Berkshires such as Karen Christensen of The Train Campaign, are convinced they’ve hit upon a winning strategy and I, too, think they’re on to something. The tracks on the current freight line operating from Danbury to Sheffield are in poor condition. Indeed there have been several derailments over the years. Willis, along with Rep. Cecilia Buck-Taylor and Sen. Clark Chapin, both Republicans from New Milford, have filed separate bills in the current legislative session that address the track north of Danbury.
Willis says her district would also have much to gain from passenger rail — not only from the obvious standpoint of increased tourism, but from the effect better rail infrastructure will have on employment and commerce. Becton-Dickinson, whose sprawling Canaan plant makes the lion’s share of the world’s syringes, is also one of Housatonic Railroad’s biggest customers and is in an expansionist mode. Ditto Specialty Minerals, whose giant rock processing plant in Canaan produces tons of limestone every day. So investing in viable freight service is vital to the region’s economy.
Willis has been my my state representative since 2001. Over the years, we’ve both personally witnessed some of the several derailments caused, no doubt, by Housatonic Railroad’s poor rail infrastructure. Consequently, one of the goals of Willis’ bill, according to its language, is “to protect environmentally sensitive areas that this railroad runs through by improving the infrastructure to prevent derailments.”
The economic and environmental incentives for the state to rebuild the railroad are powerful. The tourism case? Less so. There simply aren’t as many cultural attractions in western Connecticut compared to the Berkshires. And it’s clearly more expensive to rebuild the track for passenger rail compared to freight.
Malloy himself acknowledged this last summer when asked about passenger rail to the Berkshires, telling a group of Democrats in Cornwall, “If we’re going to go down that road, some negotiations are needed to decide who pays for what. It would appear that although it would be nice for us, it would be great for them.”
Maybe, just maybe, the new administration of Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker would be willing to entertain the idea of paying for some of the passenger rail upgrades (beyond freight) needed in Connecticut (e.g. stations, additional tracks) in order to get the people-trains rolling up to Great Barrington and Lenox?
As one sign at the Canaan rally declared emphatically, “Train Up!” Just a thought, governors . . .
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