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Hartford high-speed rail plan gains traction

(The following story by Jim Kinney appeared on The Republican website on April 27, 2010.)

HARTFORD, Conn. — The Connecticut River Valley could be among the first regions in the country to implement high-speed commuter rail with "All Aboard!" by 2014 or 2016.

"This corridor has its act together," said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Raymond H. LaHood.

LaHood met behind closed doors Monday morning at the Connecticut state capitol with Gov. M. Jodi Rell, Connecticut state lawmakers, Springfield officials, and U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield.

"I think this could pressure Massachusetts to get our part of this project done. That's a good thing," Neal said at the post-meeting news conference.

U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., started the day taking an Amtrak shuttle train from New Haven to Hartford with U.S. Reps. John B. Larson, D-Hartford and Rosa L. DeLauro, D-New Haven.

Ridership on Amtrak's existing service through Springfield is on the increase. The north-south Vermonter saw ridership increase 10.2 percent from 37,590 riders in October 2008 to March 2009, to 41,431 from October 2009 to March 2010. Ridership on existing Springfield-to-new Haven shuttle service increased 11.5 percent from 158,829 to 177,160.

Dodd said commuter rail service is crucial to economic development and will alleviate highway congestion.

"How many more lanes can you build in the future?" Dodd said.

Massachusetts has already received $70 million in federal stimulus money to improve the track along the Connecticut River from Springfield to the Vermont state line. Vermont has received $50 million to improve that same line north of St. Albans, Vt.

Connecticut has received $40 million in stimulus funds and plans to submit another application for additional money in May.

Timothy W. Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, said the rail improvement project has a considerable head of steam behind it.

"It's significant that we were the only region in New England to receive rail stimulus money," Brennan said.

In this region, high-speed rail would mean trains reaching speeds of 60 to 79 mph, Brennan said.

The federal government made $8 billion in stimulus money available for rail projects in January. The plan is to make an additional $2.5 billion available nationally later this year. That's the pot of money Connecticut hopes to tap.

LaHood said the Obama administration also plans to make another $1 billion for rail work available in 2011.

But competition for the money will be tough. LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Illinois, said he's visited 75 cities in 38 states over the past 14 months. Each city talked about intermodal transportation, linking trains with subways, trolleys, buses, road networks and airports.

"Some places are further along than others. Some places are just now beginning to get a plan together," LaHood said. "You have been talking about this for a long time."

Brennan said there are really several intertwined projects at play. First, there is the money for track improvements. That will pay for better switching and both north- and south-bound tracks. At first, that would allow for Amtrak to move its long-distance trains servicing Vermont closer to the Connecticut River and shave a half hour off the trip.

Then, once the improved tracks are in place, Connecticut could start frequent commuter trains from New Haven to Springfield. The Census Bureau estimates that 15,000 people a day commute south from the Springfield area into Connecticut. Another 8,000 to 9,000 people a day commute north from Connecticut into the Springfield area, Brennan said.

A Massachusetts study looking at increased east-west rail service from Springfield to Worcester should be made public soon, Brennan said.

Neal said all this increased rail traffic will boost efforts he's long championed to rehabilitate Springfield's Union Station.

The Springfield Redevelopment Authority wants to become eligible for more than $26 million in federal funds available for the station.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

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