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Sunday, January 29, 2017

The light at the end of the tunnel

The rail plan: where we stand, what we need to do next
By Will Collette

So now we’ve had a great rally at the State House to show how our corner of the state is opposed to the proposed Amtrak rail project known as the Saybrook-Kenyon bypass. 

Charlestown’s initial tantrum that the plan was a “surprise” sprung on us with evil intentions by the nefarious federal government was dowsed with ice water when our former Town Council Boss Tom Gentz admitted he had received Amtrak’s draft plan over a year ago – but didn’t have time to read it.

Also, Sen. Jack Reed has delivered additional time to comment on the plan wiping out the Charlestown Town Council’s major complaint.

The Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA Party) which controls town government loves a crisis pitting us against some relentless demonic foe.

However, I believe our opposition needs to take on a more nuanced tone. I also believe we have to think the politics of this thing through, especially since all commonly accepted political realities changed on January 20.

The Amtrak plan, as proposed, is very bad for our immediate area. But that doesn’t mean Amtrak is evil. In fact, the overall plan to modernize the Northeast Corridor is long overdue. What we don’t like is the Saybrook-Kenyon bypass route, as presented.

Rather than turn this into another Whalerock, where opposition to a specific, badly sited wind turbine project morphed into fear and hatred for all wind energy, we need to make the case that the route needs to be changed (or that the existing rail route can be upgraded to handle Acela trains).

We need to have our town officials, especially Planning Commissar Ruth Platner, do their jobs and present the documentation showing what will be lost if the Bypass is built.

It shouldn’t be hard: virtually every threatened parcel of land has already been studied and documented. It’s all there already, in the hands of the Planning and Conservation Commissions, the Charlestown Land Trust, Audubon, the Nature Conservancy, the US Fish and Wildlife Survey, RIDEM and other agencies and organizations.

The Planning Commission in particular must have all of this information already since Ruth and her gang have been working on Charlestown’s new Comprehensive Plan for the past several years. In fact, they are way overdue, having most recently promised to complete the plan “sometime in 2016.” 

According to the town’s brochure on the process, the state required the new plan to be complete by June 2016, and it's almost February 2017 without even a draft in sight.

However, the current town plan itself contains more than enough information to make the case that the Bypass, as proposed, would cause irreparable harm to Charlestown.

But what case should we make?

Here’s the rub: we are well-equipped to make the case that the Bypass, as planned, will cause tremendous damage to protected areas, watersheds, wildlife habitats, farmland, homes and more.

But do we have any reason to believe this line of argument will have any impact on the new Trump Administration?

Can anyone remember any time when Trump did a photo op anywhere that vaguely resembled a natural resource preserve? His golf courses don’t count.

Image result for Donald and eric Trump hunting
Yeah, the Trump boys sure do love wildlife.

The Donald himself does not have pets – a White House first – and seems to have no interest in animals, leading the Humane Society to label him a “threat.” 

During the campaign, he had a photo op (above) in his office with a bald eagle that might make him keen to run a rail line through eagle nesting areas around Watchaug Pond.

Does anyone really think the new Secretaries of Transportation or the Interior, or the new EPA Administrator will be interested in saving the New England Cottontail or the grasshopper sparrow?

So all the points about the environment that are listed in the Town Council resolution – perfectly good points that under normal circumstances would be more than enough to kill the Bypass – will almost certainly not make any difference to the new policy makers in Washington.

Alice in Wonderland politics may help…or not

In this Brave New World, the anti-environmental principles guiding the Trump Administration may help us in a perverse way.

Trump does not believe in climate change. From his very first hour in office, climate change stopped being an issue of concern for the federal government.

Public transportation, including public railways, has been a key part of US climate strategy. Not anymore. Funding for public transit projects is expected to dwindle.

Under the Trump infrastructure plan, we’re likely to see a boom in the construction of privately-owned, toll roads.

The NEC improvement project might have a chance if Amtrak were to revert to coal-burning steam engines, but otherwise, no.

Further, infrastructure investment money is more likely to go to states that voted for Trump, not the Blue States of the Northeast. Note that in the recently released list of Trump’s proposed infrastructure projects, Rhode Island is completely left out even though the Governor says she submitted five projects.
Image result for chinese fast trains
Trump likes these. They do not go "chug...chug...chug." They go fast!

Trump rarely talked about transportation during his campaign and when he did, he made his usual promise that whatever happened would be YUGE. He did say he is in favor of high-speed trains, like the Acela, but mainly because China already has them. 

"They have trains that go 300 miles per hour. We have trains that go chug ... chug ... chug."
I did not make that up.

Nonetheless, with Trump in the White House and hard-right Republicans in control of Congress, I see almost no chance that any part of Federal Rail Administration’s Northeast Corridor plan will get funded.

I use the term “almost” guardedly. I do see one scenario that would change the political math overnight: if Congress and the White House decide to privatize Amtrak or decide to sell off the profitable Northeast Corridor route. 

Image result for trump rail
This could be as YUGE as Trump Air!
That’s not far-fetched: plans to privatize such institutions as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Medicare and the Veterans Administration are already on the table. 

I could see Trump or the Congress using the modernization project as a deal-sweetener to some private buyer, be it the Trump kids (imagine it: Trump Rail), Exxon-Mobil or Elon Musk who wants to build a “Hyperloop” train that can travel at 760 mph.

So what do we do?

Obviously we have to stand up for our town and our homes and for our natural treasures. As in any battle, you use what you’ve got in a way that offers you the greatest chance of success.

Takes one to know one - send people who speak his language
If I was running the campaign against the Bypass, I would send our local Republican General Assembly members Rep. Blake Filippi, Sen. Elaine Morgan and especially ultraright-wing nut Rep. Justin Price on a mission to Washington.

These three are cut from the same Tea Bags and speak the same language as the crazies who run Congress and the Administration. Let them go find out who is making the decisions, what factors they are considering (if any), the actual odds of the plan happening, and to make the specific pitch that the Bypass plan needs to be scrapped.

They have been totally useless to us in the General Assembly, but they may have a value as our emissaries to Trumpland. Seriously.

While it was nice to win over Gov. Gina Raimondo to the cause of opposing the bypass, she can’t help us on this in Washington.

Neither can the members of our Congressional delegation, including Jim Langevin who has come out forcefully against the Saybrook-Kenyon Bypass. Indeed, whatever positions they take on the project might give Congressional Republicans and the Trump Administration an incentive to do the opposite.

As the Federal Railroad Administration has noted, the NEC improvement project has not yet been approved by the Trump Administration and has not been funded by the Republican-controlled Congress. It may never be unless Amtrak is privatized or the NEC segment is sold to a private company.

It’s good to stand up for Charlestown and to oppose the current Saybrook-Kenyon Bypass plan. But we should all take a deep breath and get a grip on the political realities behind this threat.

It is hard to imagine that the rail bypass proposed by the Federal Railroad Administration as part of an upgrade to the Northeast Corridor could ever become a reality. U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal described it as “dead on arrival” soon after the FRA announced its recommendation in December…. As unlikely as it is that this project will ever get past the concept stage, the region cannot let down its guard. That is why it is good to see that opposition is organizing in the region and elected leaders are paying attention.
This seems like a sensible approach to me.

I hope the CCA Party doesn’t seize on this as yet another opportunity to pump up a dubious project into a full-blown boogeyman to scare Charlestown voters.

Image result for we'll all be deadI doubt the Northeast Corridor modernization project will get approved by Trump or funded by Congress. There may be some point after Washington swings back in the other direction that someone might dust off this plan and try to push it again.

But the likely timing of a political swing in Washington is at least 2-4 years and likely more. That pushes this 30-year project off so far into the future that I think the odds are higher we’ll all be dead before we see a rail cut through the Frances Carter Preserve.