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Monday, January 2, 2017

Fight the Amtrak plan on the merits

But stop saying Charlestown was “blind-sided” or “surprised”
By Will Collette

Like most Charlestown residents, I was alarmed by recent details on the local segment of the Federal Railroad Administration’s plan for much-needed improvements to Amtrak service in the Northeast Corridor. The new route is intended to straighten out tracks in our area to permit high speed Acela trains to run at full speed.

The alarming piece is called the “Saybrook-Kenyon Bypass.” It would cut a wide swath through critical habitat and protected wild spaces such as Burlingame and the Frances Carter Preserve.

Neighboring communities face similar threats to their protected lands. It would even cut through the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed new wildlife refuge to preserve our native bunnies.

Bear in mind the Saybrook-Kenyon Bypass is part of a gigantic, multi-billion Northeast Corridor rail modernization project that at best will take 30 years to complete. That assumes it gets funding from a radical Republican-controlled Congress.

We’ll be lucky if this Congress funds disaster relief for the Northeast the next time we’re hit by a big hurricane or blizzard, never mind a project like this.

This plan has not been approved by the incoming Trump Administration. For key positions, Trump has picked oil industry executives with no self-interest in public transportation projects. Incoming Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has no interest in this type of project.

Nonetheless, it would be irresponsible to ignore the threat, however remote, the Saybrook-Kenyon Bypass poses to our natural treasures.

There are some pretty powerful arguments on the merits against the Amtrak proposal, given the impact it will have on natural resources in South County and eastern Connecticut.

But Charlestown town government seems fixated on basing their opposition on their claim they have been hoodwinked by the feds. They claim the town was never given fair warning.

In her letter to the Federal Railroad Administration, Charlestown Planning Commissar Ruth Platner even implies that only the Narragansett Indian Tribe received any notice.

New Council President Virginia Lee complained to the Westerly Sun that the draft EIS didn’t explicitly mention Charlestown so we’ve been totally out of the loop until now”. Lee also makes several references to the Narragansett Indian Tribe, implying they were “in the loop” while the town of Charlestown was not.

However, that’s simply not true.


In fact, Charlestown did receive advance notice

The draft Environmental Impact Statement was sent to Charlestown Town Council Boss Tom Gentz over a year ago in November 2015. The plan itself was first released in December 2014.

Gentz is listed twice on the draft EIS recipient list twice, on pages FF-59 and FF-74.

Yes, the Narragansetts were on that list. So were the Mayors, municipal councils and municipal chief executives for virtually every city and town along the Northeast Corridor. That includes Westerly, Richmond, Hopkinton, South Kingstown, Exeter and so on.

Agencies were also notified. For example, Jeff Broadhead, director of the Washington County Regional Planning Council, got a copy. Tom Gentz has been on that Council for years.

Image result for platner and gentz
"Tom, is there anything you're not telling me?"
I did not see Ruth Platner on the distribution list. But if she has a grievance, it’s with Boss Gentz who may have forgotten to show her the draft EIS so she could read it and then explain it to him.

State and federal agencies, including the US Fish and Wildlife Service who’s new Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge will be heavily impacted, were also notified.

Nobody from South County local government filed any comments.

In her FRA letter, Ruth Platner does acknowledge the FRA described the rail lines running through Charlestown and the rest of our area. Oddly, she goes on a tangent, criticizing Amtrak for calling the West Kingston Amtrak station “South Kingston” and noting that West Kingston is a place in the town of South Kingstown.”

Then five lines later, Platner criticizes Amtrak’s use of the term “Saybrook-Kenyon Bypass” asserting that “Kenyon is a place name, not a municipality.” Well, neither is West Kingston.

None of this semantical nit-picking helps Charlestown deal with this problem.

We’ve known for years that the tracks running through Charlestown are not capable of allowing Acela to run at full speed.

We’ve known for years that Amtrak wants to change that.

This is reason enough why we should have been paying attention from the very beginning of the process because any likely rail plan would have some impact on the tracks running through Charlestown.

We missed the opportunity in 2015 to pay closer attention to Amtrak’s plan and to at least pre-emptively file detailed comments about the important areas that Amtrak should avoid.

That’s on Tom Gentz who had the draft document 14 months ago. It’s on Jeff Broadhead who runs an agency that’s supposed to stay on top of issues like this. He too had the draft 14 months ago. They missed it. ‘Nuff said.

So my advice to Charlestown town government is to stop with the victim act and stick with the real issues, of which there are many. That’s the best way to not only provide credible opposition to the plan but to also hold together what seems like a Charlestown consensus against the local track re-routing proposal.

Here’s one example of a way to frame the arguments on the substance, an op-ed written by Kristen M. Castrataro of Richmond that ran in EcoRI.

By KRISTEN M. CASTRATARO

Every election cycle, Rhode Islanders are asked to pass bond issues to preserve farmland and open space, and every election cycle Rhode Islanders rise to the occasion. Millions of dollars have been earmarked to buy development rights on farms that otherwise would be turned into housing developments or strip malls.

It is the height of irony, therefore, that Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., supports using more taxpayer dollars to destroy the very farmland and open space his constituents regularly vote to protect.

The Tier 1 Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) details proposed changes to the course of the tracks of the Northeast Corridor, changes that Sen. Reed considers good for Providence.

What does that proposal entail for Rhode Island? According to the EIS, the new railroad tracks would adversely impact an additional 11 cultural resources and historic properties (note these are only the registered sites), 200 acres of prime farmland, 1,415 acres of prime timberland, and tribal lands.

This taxpayer fails to see the value in “preserving” farmland and open spaces with tax dollars while simultaneously destroying farmland and open spaces with more tax dollars.

It is no secret that Rhode Island has its struggles. The economy is generally sluggish. The business environment has been described as decidedly unfriendly.  Political corruption jokes are standard fare in the media.

Despite these negatives, the Ocean State attracts residents, tourists and students from all over the world, and is home to families that trace their heritage back hundreds of years.

Why do they come? Why do they stay?

They stay because our little state offers something for everyone. History and culture buffs can visit Newport mansions, historic farms and industrial landmarks. Nature enthusiasts can wander through acres of forests, bask on sun-drenched beaches, and bird-watch in open fields. Foodies can pick out fresh meat, vegetables, fruits and seafood at farm stands, farmers markets and local eateries.

Our cultural and natural resources make Rhode Island a destination worth visiting, and this rail plan cuts through the heart of that.

Should this plan be implemented, a 150-acre, fourth-generation livestock farm will be divided by the new tracks, land-locking the individual parcels and effectively killing the farm business.

The Frances C. Carter Memorial Preserve, one of the largest preserves in the state, will also be cut in half, endangering an 11-mile open-space corridor. The Amos Green Farm, an 18th-century historic farm and site of Revolutionary War Encampments, will be segmented.

Residents who just recently bought homes in a new subdivision could be forced to move out.
The real travesty is that this plan has been almost five years in the making and nobody thought it was important to inform these residents of the threat until a week before Christmas. Really? 

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Even in a letter written largely on the merits, we still get this complaint about notice. However, in her case, notice to Richmond residents should have come from Richmond town officials who also received the draft EIS 14 months ago. At least she confines her complaint to just two lines rather than make it the central theme].

In return for this, what does Rhode Island get? A shorter commute to Boston and Washington, D.C., which will encourage local talent to work out of state and further cripple our economy.

Increased train speeds, resulting in increased noise pollution and additional threats to wildlife.

Added strains on the state coffers — higher taxes, anyone? — to develop and maintain the new, wider tracks.

The reality is that the EIS plan offers no real value to Rhode Island while substantially damaging the elements that make the Ocean State an appealing place to live and visit.

Contact your local, state and national officials via telephone today to let them know that you are opposed to the Tier 1 EIS and that you support Rhode Island’s open space and farmlands.

Kristen M. Castrataro is a resident of Richmond, R.I.