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Conn. seeks funding for more commuter rail service

(The Associated Press circulated the following on May 9, 2009.)

HARTFORD, Conn. — A long-stalled project to revive commuter rail service between coastal Connecticut and western Massachusetts is picking up momentum — and may, in time, also pick up federal dollars, officials say.

U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd and leaders of Connecticut’s Democrat-controlled General Assembly said Friday that the 64-mile link between New Haven and Springfield, Mass., could be revived within the next few years if all remains on schedule.

Regular commuter rail service has not been available in that corridor for decades. Most commuters drive, though some take buses or use Amtrak’s Vermonter and Springfield Shuttle services.

Amtrak has owned and controlled the tracks between New Haven and Springfield since 1971. Officials from the national passenger rail service are slated to meet May 14 with Connecticut and federal officials to discuss ways the commuter line could use the tracks without interrupting Amtrak service.

Supporters think reviving the commuter service would ease highway congestion, boost job creation and prevent Connecticut from becoming what one transportation expert in 1999 called a potential "economic cul de sac."

Dodd said Friday that President Barack Obama’s administration is committed to improving transit options, and that advocates of the rail service are "not getting pushback at this point" from Amtrak and others who would have a stake in it.

"The good news is that things are now clearly moving," Dodd said.

Funding, however, remains an open question.

In 2006, the state Department of Transportation said Connecticut needed at least $300 million for equipment, stations and other capital items to start the service.

Another $10 million would be needed for annual operating costs for the 55-mile stretch between New Haven and the Massachusetts border. The Bay State would have to provide the other $1 million yearly for its portion connecting to Springfield.

Updated cost estimates were not immediately available Friday.

The current federal law directing nationwide transportation funding and policies expires Sept. 30. Congress is working on updates, and many southern New England officials hope commuter rail service gets more funding in the new package.

Commuter rail linked central Connecticut with New York and Springfield for decades, but it ended almost 40 years ago with the demise of the former New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad.

Plans by state transportation officials envision a revived service which, in the best-case scenario with maximum funding, would offer trains running every 30 minutes during rush hour.

They would stop at stations in New Haven, Wallingford, Meriden, Berlin, Hartford, Windsor, Windsor Locks and Springfield, Mass. A shuttle bus would connect the Windsor Locks station with Bradley International Airport.

Connecticut state House Speaker Christopher Donovan, D-Meriden, said even launching modest service in the next few years would be a good start on which to later expand.

"The idea that people would have easy access to New York, easy access to the airport, would really open up our state," he said.

State officials say in addition to the funding question, the start date would depend on other factors: the timing of environmental impact studies, upgrading platforms and stations where needed, and how long it would take Amtrak to add a second set of tracks on about 18 miles of single-track stretches.

Monday, May 11, 2009

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