No matter who wins on Election Day, City Hall will remain ready to climb aboard the push for passenger rail service in Bristol.
"The train is the future of our state," said city Councilor Cliff Block, a Democrat seeking a second term.
The city, state lawmakers and business leaders have become cheerleaders for a plan to upgrade the old freight railroad line between Berlin and Waterbury so that it could also handle commuter rail, probably with stations downtown and in Forestville.
Though the cost of the proposal remains unclear -- $50 million is the low estimate – officials say it would help relieve congestion, open new doors to development and embrace a more environmentally-friendly transportation option.
“We need to all get on board,” said independent mayoral hopeful Gary Lawton.
“Just do it,” said Republican mayoral candidate Mary Alford. She called it the least expensive way to get mass transit in Bristol.
“I just have one thing to say about the rail – all aboard!” Alford said.
Mayor Art Ward, a Democrat angling for reelection on November 3, said he’d keep pushing the project because it offers “a tremendous opportunity” for the city.
Not everyone is quite as sure that train service for Bristol is going to work out.
Veteran Republican city Councilor Mike Rimcoski said he "would love to see a railroad" connecting Central Connecticut towns.
But, he said, “we have to face the facts” and recognize that most people want to remain behind the wheel. “You’re not going to see these people flock to the railroads," Rimcoski said.
Kate Matthews, a Democratic council contender in the 3rd District, said she is concerned that the project would prove costly and the commuter line “may be underutilized by our residents.”
Both Matthews and Kevin Fuller, a 1st District Democratic candidate, said study is needed to see if commuters will use it.
Some candidates said that a downtown station won’t attract passengers, let alone shoppers and day-trippers, if the city doesn’t clean up the area around the former mall site and make sure that people feel safe there.
Fuller called it “a tough subject,” but efforts to clean up Summer Street and other nearby areas are critical. People are going to want “a very nice place” to get on and off the train, he said.
Richard Scarola, a 2nd District Republican candidate, said that a train station could become “the gateway to Depot Square," the name the city is using for the 17-acre former mall site downtown.
City Councilor Kevin McCauley, a Democrat seeking a third term, pointed out there was once a train depot near Depot Square and should be again.
McCauley said the city needs to focus on getting rail and improving the lower Summer Street area to make a downtown station viable. That has to be a piece of revitalization effort, he said."It is the future of this city," McCauley said.
Scarola said that everybody agrees on the need to move forward with the train option, but the city should also explore doing more.
Scarola said the city needs to consider extending the line to Clinton and Essex to tie in to other lines and to plan on bringing period steam trains, Thomas the Train and other rail attractions to town.
He said there could be trips to Thomaston so residents could catch a show at the opera house or to Deep River to catch a steamboat on the Connecticut River.
"It will bring thousands and thousands and thousands of people back to Bristol," Scarola said.
Allen Marko, a Democratic newcomer also running in the 2nd District, said that light rail is the future, with federal money pouring into it rather than highways.Marko pointed out there is "a very strong proposal" for high speed rail from Springfield to New Haven. Commuter rail lines, including one from Bristol, could feed into that system, he said.Marko said that the line can bring people into Bristol as well as helping them reach jobs elsewhere.
"Trains run two ways," Marko said. "This rail system improvement is the way of the future," he said.City Councilor Ken Cockayne, a first-term Republican, said that he will keep pushing for the new line.
Cockayne said the city has to work with other towns along the line "or this doesn't fly."Democrat Terry Parker, a 3rd District newcomer, said that light rail could help transport residents and lessen the traffic on city streets.
Road improvements "just seem to put more traffic on our streets," Block said, while rail is a way to get the cars off the roads.Block said the cost of up to $100 million is worth it.Republican David Mills, a GOP contender in the 3rd District, said a mass transit system “would allow residents to connect with major cities in the region” and help companies such as ESPN build more connections in the area.
Councilors serve two-year terms for $10,000 annually. Voters will choose six councilors, two from each district, on Tuesday, Nov. 3.
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