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New England states pursue joint plan to revamp rail system

(The following story by Chris Garofolo appeared on the Brattleboro Reformer website on July 31, 2010.)

HARTFORD, Conn. — A 20-year transportation proposal to renovate more than 500 miles of passenger rail throughout New England is anticipated to increase speed between stations while unclogging some of the region’s congested highways.

The ambitious project, running through Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont, is designed to improve connection times and spark economic growth throughout the Northeast.

Transportation officials from the three states have coordinated a regional vision to connect major cities and airports, including Bradley International in Windsor Locks in the hopes of doubling passenger rail ridership by 2030.

Vermont would receive a boost in its already expanding ridership on the Amtrak line operating from Franklin County down to Washington, D.C. Estimates from transit representatives indicate travel time could decrease by as much as an hour from central Connecticut to southern Vermont.

"Among many of the outcomes in Vermont will be shaving off an estimated 27 minutes of running time from St. Albans to the Massachusetts border once the project is complete," said Joe Flynn, rail program manager for the Vermont Agency of Transportation.

"In addition to the Massachusetts upgrades, once all three states have completed this first round of projects, the running time from St. Albans to New York City is expected to be reduced by 90 minutes," he said.

News of the passenger rail improvements come at an ideal time -- Vermont’s ridership figures from June 2009 to 2010 skyrocketed by 35 percent. Revenues on Amtrak’s Vermonter also were up 44 percent in June from the previous year.

Ultimately, the goal is to expand rail to support development in the region (local economics will see a boost in construction jobs) and add new capacities for the freight trains that currently dominate the track, said Planning Chief Tom Maziarz with the Connecticut Department of Transportation.

Intermodal connections would also increase from Bradley to bus systems in Hartford and New Britain that are likely to promote energy efficiency and reduce automobile, truck and air congestion, he said.

Maziarz spoke before a packed delegation of commuters, business owners and civic leaders Thursday evening at Hartford’s Union Station.

However, long-term success of this comprehensive, integrated regional rail plan will depend on what was referred to as the project’s "backbone" -- the New Haven, Hartford and Springfield, Mass., portion.

Officials stated the New Haven to Springfield inland route is the first element, eventually leading to improvements toward Boston and the Maine coastline. The Vermonter route through western Massachusetts’s "Knowledge Corridor" towns such as Northampton and Holyoke up to Montreal is the second element of the project, according to Maziarz.

Roundtrips would significantly increase at many stations by 2030 if the project is successful.

Hartford’s station would increase from six up to 25 daily roundtrips. Stations like Brattleboro, Vt., which presently has one northbound and southbound train per day, would expand to three roundtrips.

The rail service project is part of a massive spending initiative kick-started by President Barack Obama as part of his stimulus plan. All three neighboring states have taken federal money for high-speed rail grants under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Connecticut has received $40 million to add a second track, but has also chipped in more than $200 million in state funds for the project. Massachusetts received $70 million to upgrade the deteriorating Connecticut River line from Springfield to Vermont.

The Green Mountain State received $50 million to improve the Central New England Railroad track from St. Albans southward. The renovation will include 80,000 cross-ties, upgrades to signage along the route and communication improvements for the railroads.

Vermont is close to receiving the greenlight by the Federal Railroad Administration to proceed with the improvements, but the project is fast-tracked and could begin as soon as early August.

"The money’s there, the final paperwork hasn’t been signed between the federal government and the state of Vermont," said Flynn.

Monday, August 2, 2010

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