April 27, 2009

Passenger rail study is likely

State lawmakers say they’ve managed to squirrel away $250,000 in a bonding measure that would pay for a study about the potential for commuter rail service for Bristol and New Britain.

“It’s moving forward,” said state Sen. Donald DeFronzo, a New Britain Democrat whose 6th District includes Berlin and a portion of Farmington.

The money is included in the transportation bonding bill that is typically approved in the days leading up to final adoption of the state budget, several legislators said.

Bristol Mayor Art Ward said he’s “happy to realize that even in these economic times,” state legislators recognize the value of exploring the prospects for upgrading the railroad line between Waterbury and Berlin to allow for commuter train service in years to come.

“This is a good start,” Ward said. “I’m encouraged by the commitment of the state.”

State Rep. Betty Boukus, a Plainville Democrat whose 22nd District includes portions of New Britain and Bristol, said she got the money included to make the study possible during the next fiscal year. As the chair of the transportation bonding subcommittee, she has a key perch to ensure the project isn’t overlooked.

A fan of mass transit, Boukus said that use of the rail line would help relieve pressure on congested highways.

“Hopefully, it will lead to something,” said state Rep. Chris Wright, a first-term Bristol Democrat. With luck, he said, the study “will get things started in the right direction.
DeFronzo said he’s encouraged that Waterbury lawmakers have begun to recognize that a rail spur bringing commuters into their city would help them with long-term plans to create a transportation hub.

The Central Connecticut Regional Planning Agency has three transportation initiatives it is pushing for, including the commuter line, a busway from New Britain to Hartford and plans for passenger rail between New Haven and Springfield, Mass.

Officials currently estimate the cost of upgrading the 24 miles of track between Berlin and Waterbury – including fixing bridges and adding new depots – at $52 million.

It has been 17 years since the last study of the passenger rail option, officials said. At the time, the idea was dropped as too costly, but there is far more support for mass transit now than there was in the early 1990s. The earlier study also focused primarily on the prospects for tying in to MetroNorth’s track in Waterbury for use by New York City-bound travelers.

There are currently four freight trains a day running between Plainville and Berlin and one between Bristol and Waterbury. The average speed on the single track is about 20 miles an hour, with some sections requiring slower speeds but some sections allow faster travel.

The track in Bristol heads west into Plymouth before dropping south to Waterbury. To the east, it runs through Plainville and New Britain to the main Connecticut Valley line in Berlin.

Pan Am Railways, which owns the track, does have experience with rail lines servicing both freight and passenger needs. Along the Haverill, Mass., Pan Am has 38 MBTA commuter trains that share the tracks with 20 freight trains and 10 Amtrak trains.

Berlin to Waterbury rail line

24.5 miles

Single track

Owned by Mass.-based Pan Am Railways

Copyright 2009. All rights reserved.
Contact Steve Collins at scollins@bristolpress.com

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