Two groups opposed to a new high-speed Amtrak rail line through an historic section of Old Lyme are claiming that records they obtained show that recent public hearings are a charade and that approval for the project is a done deal despite opposition.
Rail officials adamantly deny the accusation.
SECoast and the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, the two groups opposed to the new route, said that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) finalized maps for a new Amtrak high-speed rail route through Connecticut as early as April 6, 2016, and state officials knew about it no later than mid-July.
The documents, which are no longer available on the federal Advisory Council for Historic Preservation website, contradict months of denials by both the FRA and Connecticut Transportation officials that the alternative route through Old Lyme was still part of the blueprint for expansion of high-speed rail in the northeast corridor. At an August 31 public forum in Old Lyme, Northeast Corridor Future Project Manager Rebecca Reyes-Alicea said that the plan for an elevated track through the town — to bypass a congested line through the historic district — was not moving forward.
“We heard folks loud and clear on that,” Reyes-Alicea said.
However, FRA officials quickly walked back that statement saying no decision has been finalized yet on which route it will take.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, state legislators, and local leaders, as well as a standing-room-only crowd of more than 500 residents from throughout the region, attended that public forum last week in Old Lyme to voice their opposition to the proposal.
At the meeting, Blumenthal called the high-speed rail project a “half-baked and hare-brained idea unworthy of any sort of taxpayer dollars.”
Dates and signatures on documents obtained by SECoast show that the FRA circulated maps of their preferred high-speed rail route to state and federal agencies no later than July 12, 2016. The FRA document was available at www.achp.gov/docs/nec-future-investment-program.pdf, but has since been removed.
The same week that both the FRA and Connecticut transportation officials issued denials, they were pressing forward with the route. That’s according to emails obtained by SECoast through the Freedom of Information Act. The emails further suggested that a decision on the “Preferred Alternative” occurred as early as February 18, 2016 — just two days after the close of public comment.
Gregory Stroud, executive director of SECoast, a regional organization leading grassroots opposition to the planned bypass, described the denials and withholding of information by the FRA and state transportation officials as “cynical.”
“If you look at these maps, it’s pretty obvious this is the same plan that Connecticut DOT Commissioner James Redeker described in an email back on February 18th. That’s just two days after the FRA received well over a thousand public comments in opposition to the bypass,” Stroud said. “For Reyes-Alecia to come to Old Lyme and pretend that her agency values public input, suggests not just flawed planning, but bad faith.”
Stroud pointed out that two Freedom of Information requests to the FRA, for detailed maps and planning documents on the bypass, remain outstanding. Those requests were filed April 4, 2016.
Blumenthal said that the documents Stroud uncovered “raise serious concerns about the transparency and sincerity of this process and I have demanded an explanation from FRA. I continue to stand with Old Lyme in staunch opposition. This project is a non-starter.”
An unnamed spokesman for the FRA Tuesday denied that the high-speed rail route was a done deal and further denied that public comment isn’t being taken seriously by officials.
“Later this year, FRA plans to make a recommendation for the future of the Northeast Corridor. The recommendation will be just that — a recommendation — for a path forward,” the FRA spokesman said.
“We have not yet finalized the recommendation, though we are making progress toward its conclusion. Ultimately the recommendation will reflect the wide variety of opinions we have heard on the most effective way to bring faster, more reliable passenger rail service for millions of Northeast Corridor commuters and travelers.”
The FRA declined to answer further questions for this story.
The FRA has the authority to select a route to upgrade and expand high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor from Washington to Boston. It proposed three new routes last November and is expected to settle on one or a combination of routes later this year before moving forward with an environmental study.
“Connecticut is more impacted by routing of Amtrak’s next generation of high speed rail service than any other state between Washington and Boston,” Daniel Mackay, executive director of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, said. “Now that FRA’s preferred route for high-speed rail is finally public, the first step the agency should take to rebuild public trust is to reopen the public comment period.”
Mackay said that residents deserve an opportunity to comment on the route and the FRA should delay a decision on the final route until “meaningful public input” has been considered.
Christine Stuart contributed to this story.