About 100 concerned citizens came out on June 7 to find out more about a proposed federal high-speed rail expansion that some believe could have a devastating impact on a swath of historic, environmental, and economic infrastructure as it blazes through Branford and Guilford. The meeting, held at Guilford's Nathanael Greene Community Center, also shared information on how citizens can help put the brakes on the plan.
The informational meeting was gathered by a grassroots group of Stony Creek/Branford and Guilford residents who began raising the alarm with local, state, and national leaders about six months ago, after months of unsuccessful efforts to have the Federal Railway Administration (FRA) share more on what it plans to do.
On June 7, Gregory Stroud, director of special projects for the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation and co-founder of SECoast, shared what he's learned in his advocacy efforts to derail impacts of the FRA's quad-tracking plans in historic districts across the state.
As Stroud explained, the FRA is targeting the Branford-Guilford line as a link in the planned Northeast Corridor "quad-track" express rail line. While exact details are not available, Stroud anticipates that will mean adding two more rail lines to existing railways, adding between 75 to 150 feet of expanded railway width along the Branford-Guilford line.
Even though the expansion will affect historic homes along the way, the FRA appears to be ignoring federal law requiring proper notification of property owners and other stakeholders. Both the Connecticut Historic Trust and National Historic Trust have notified the FRA of the legal failing. In addition, Stroud said calls have been ignored to produce studies and maps, as well as to notify citizens and work with the public, despite requests in recent months and weeks from first selectmen of both towns, as well as all state and federal legislators representing the towns. (See the story on leaders calling for action at www.zip06.com.)
Guilford Selectman and past first selectman Carl Balestracci attended the June 7 meeting. He noted Guilford's coastal flooding issues underlines the state's need to raise roads along the same corridor (State Route 146) where the rail expansion is planned. That means the rails need to be raised as well, adding up to a multi-million dollar proposition.
"Before any federal organization thinks about adding tracks, they need to deal with raising the tracks and with raising [Route] 146, which is a state road," said Balestracci. "So the state government and the federal government needs to address that problem before they think about adding any additional tracks to this area."
Stroud said Balestracci's comment was not only valid, but points to the need to know exactly is being discussed and determined by the FRA as plans are pushed ahead to finalize the corridor. To illustrate the very limited information the FRA has been willing to share publicly, Stroud showed a slide of a sparse schematic map he received from the FRA after months of requesting more information. He said it doesn't compare to the comprehensive map the FRA displayed at a closed conference he attended.
"They are bound by a standard of full disclosure and we believe that they have fallen short in terms of full disclosure that's reasonable," said Stroud. "There's a strict standard for disclosure, and we feel they've fallen short of that."
He also questioned the FRA listing "capacity" as a need for the expansion, asking "what is capacity?" In the case of the segments passing through New Haven and incorporating Branford and Guilford, Stroud said the best guess is that the expansion here would provide alternate track for trains in holding patterns, giving the line the ability to allow excess trains to have waiting space akin to planes "circling the airport" when waiting to land.
Speakers emphasized that the public needs to act now to help slow the process of the plan, essentially by requesting the FRA to hit the reset button so that the public can be involved in the planning from the first. Once FRA's exploration of the Branford-Guilford segment goes from the current "preferred alternative" stage into the "record of decision," it will be more difficult to reverse the course of the plan, said Stroud. Once that happens, even it if takes years for funding or other elements to fall into place before expansion gets underway, the impacts will be felt, including falling real estate values due to the anticipated expansion, said Stroud.
He said 500 residents sending an email to the FRA right now will help get the attention needed to derail plans for the Branford-Guilford segment from entering the final "record of decision" stage.
"It's now that is the time, not later," said Stroud. "The federal government has announced [the record of decision] will be sometime this year, and there's a couple of reasons why we think it might be soon."
In addition to the FRA "informally" saying they're trying get it done as soon as possible, Stroud said the head of FRA is coming to Connecticut "sometime in June [for what] we expect [to be] a meeting in New Haven, which is unannounced and private, [with] we believe the acting executive director of the FRA. So we believe this might have something to do with the timing, just before the record of decision."
With time of the essence, the group is urging residents to email FRA Acting Administrator Patrick Warren at firstname.lastname@example.org asking to remove the Branford-Guilford quad tracking segment of the Northeast Corridor plan from the record of decision, until it can be properly studied and vetted.
Many more details gathered by SECoast on the Branford-Guilford proposed rail expansion are posted at the SECoast website here
SECoast is a non-profit non-partisan collaborative effort partnering Southeastern Connecticut and the Lower Connecticut River Valley residents with the state-wide resources and expertise of the CT Trust for Historic Preservation.