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Thursday, July 13, 2017

Relax, AMTRAK is not going to destroy Charlestown

The much-reviled Saybrook-Kenyon Bypass is dead

By Will Collette

Read the Record of Decision by CLICKING HERE.

When AMTRAK unveiled the details for creating a long, new stretch of rail through Eastern Connecticut and southwestern Rhode Island, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) pronounced the plan “dead on arrival.”

The new route would run from Old Saybrook in Connecticut to Kenyon, RI and the Kingston train station as part of Amtrak's much needed rail modernization program. But the idea of this route was fatally flawed as it endangered everything from the Mystic Aquarium to nature preserves, historic and cultural sites, family farms and lots of homes.

It seemed that no one along the proposed route liked it. Panic and confusion roiled communities from Old Lyme to Charlestown.

But that can stop now because the Federal Rail Administration, Amtrak's boss, announced yesterday that the Bypass has been dropped from the final plan.

Instead, AMTRAK will study the feasibility of improving the existing rail bed to make it safer and faster. Though that is not good news for neighbors of the existing bed, it is pretty much what most Charlestown opponents said they wanted. I rate the odds of this "study," if it ever happens, reviving the Bypass as less than zero.

From the beginning of the AMTRAK flap last December, my own opinion pretty much echoed Sen. Blumenthal’s, holding to the belief there was no way this project would get approval or funding from either the Trump regime or the conservative Republican controlled Congress.

In fact, the fate of AMTRAK as a system is in doubt as current budget plans show massive budget cuts that would make even basic maintenance of existing lines difficult, never mind beginning any new construction. 

The budget situation is so bad that AMTRAK is considering loading up train cars with more seats in a move some see as making trains as uncomfortable as flying. Except longer.

There simply is no money to pay for the $120-150 billion 25-year project. Despite that fact, AMTRAK has been continuing to plan and design this project in a manner reported by the Connecticut Post to be “agnostic to funding.”

Congressional Republicans have never liked the idea of government-owned railroads going back decades to the time when the federals took over bankrupt rail companies to prevent a collapse of our rail infrastructure

Now, with disciples of Ayn Rand like House Speaker Paul Ryan in control, it seems inevitable they will try to sell off all or major chunks of the federal rail system. The profitable Northeast Corridor (NEC) could be among the first to go.

I even speculated that Trump might favor selling off NEC to his kids for a new Trump Rail, but Russiagate and the recent bombshell revelations about Donald “Fredo” Trump, Jr.’s attempts to collude with the Russian government, I doubt we’ll ever see a Trump Rail.

However, let’s bear in mind that AMTRAK privatization would change the equation for the NEC since this Congress would certainly want to assist the private owners in any way they can. But on the very one list of things to worry about, this worry belongs near the bottom.

Charlestown finally did its part to add to the chorus of dissent against the Saybrook Kenyon Bypass after kvetching about lack of notice (though, in fact, former Town Council Boss Tom Gentz had a copy of the plan for months but claimed he didn’t have time to read it).

Here is the official summary of local comments that appear in Section 6 (page 36-38) of the FRA’s Record of Decision:

6.1.5 Charlestown/Richmond Area (RI) 

Many comments were received from the Charlestown, RI, area, generally opposing the Old Saybrook-Kenyon new segment due to environmental, economic, and community impacts. 

Town of Charlestown adopted a resolution opposing the Old Saybrook-Kenyon new segment, citing many of the same concerns raised in comments submitted by residents and groups in the area. 

Factors cited by commenters from this area in opposing the Old Saybrook-Kenyon new segment included the following:

> Concerns about a lack of direct engagement with Charlestown despite major impacts on Charlestown 

> Potential impacts to critical aquifers that supply Charlestown water supply 

> Potential construction issues because the town sits on glacial moraine 

> Potential for direct and indirect impacts to individual homes and to family-owned farms, including Stoney Hill Farm 

> Potential impacts to historic properties, including the following: − Amos Green Farm and other farms and protected agricultural land

− Bradford Historic District

− Columbia Heights Historic District

− Kenyon Historic District

− Shannock Village Historic District

− East Greenwich Historic District

− Areas sensitive for archaeological resources 

> Impacts to natural resources and protected areas, including the following:

− Frances Carter Preserve

− The Riverwood Preserve

− The Hidden Meadows Open Space, the Burlingame Estates Open Space, the Kings Factory Rd. and the Botka Woods Open Space

− Conservation easements owned by Charlestown and the Narragansett Tribe

− Shannock Road, a State Scenic Road

− Biscuit City Fishing Area

− The Pawcatuck and Wood-Pawcatuck Rivers, currently nominated for designation as Wild and Scenic Rivers

− The Great Thicket Wildlife Refuge and land currently under consideration to be added to the refuge 

> Magnitude of travel-time savings between New York City and Boston is too small to justify the impacts of the new segment 

> Potential loss of property value and difficulty of selling and financing of existing homes, due to concerns about use of eminent domain 

> Potential impacts on private wells near Charlestown 

> Impacts on quality of life 

> Potential to disturb area contaminated by radioactive spill at United Nuclear 

Based on these concerns, the commenters from this area strongly urged the FRA to remove the Old Saybrook-Kenyon new segment from the ROD and improve the existing NEC.