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SECoast expert Gregory Stroud is shown here in June in Guilford, speaking on Federal Rail Administration's NEC Future quad-track segment expansion plans for Branford and Guilford. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
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An announcement today that essentially drives a spike through what had been planned for a high-speed "quad track" rail expansion through Branford-Guilford is being received with cautious optimism from the advocate and expert who's been leading the charge to put the brakes on the fast-moving project.
Essentially, today's announcement shares that the Federal Rail Administration (FRA) "...has not made any recommendation between New Haven and Providence, so that would include the quad tracking between Branford and Guilford; so that piece of NEC Future is no longer in the plan. So we think of that as significant progress. That said, I think we should be cautious," said Gregory Stroud, director of special projects for the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation and co-founder of SECoast.
In exclusive interview with Zip06/The Sound today, Stroud said the announcement impacts the FRA's most recent plans for the Northeast Corridor (NEC) Future project; but doesn't put a stop to the FRA's intent to produce a railway expansion that will meet a high-speed benchmark of two hours and 45 minutes travel time between Boston, MA and New York, NY.
The question now, said Stroud, is "...how do they meet those two hours, forty-five minutes?"
As revealed with the announcement today, part of the answer will now include input from the state Department of Transportation of both Connecticut and Rhode Island. That's a good thing because both have a better track record of public involvement in their planning processes, said Stroud.
The new move to include the two state departments in the NEC Future planning was incorporated into the FRA's Record of Decision, announced July 12. While it's a change that should be welcomed, it's not the end of the line, said Stroud.
"They're still asking the states to find solutions to the east of New Haven; and they haven't eliminated any of the solutions that have been proposed," said Stroud. "So these projects could reappear."
Still, the announcement is giant step away from an NEC Future quad-track proposal which appeared to be heading for final approval as little as a month ago. At that point, the FRA's quad-track plan was locked in the "preferred alternative" stage, with an approval possible at any time via the final Record of Decision.
In June, Stroud spoke to a gathering of more than 100 Guilford and Branford residents at Guilford Community Center, to drive home the point that little, if any, time remained to help sway the FRA. See the story here
One pivotal point raised by the Trust and SECoast was that the FRA's NEC Future proposal appeared to be avoiding federal law requiring proper notification of historic property owners impacted by the plan. In addition, the FRA largely ignored requests to produce studies and maps, as well as to notify citizens and work with the public, despite requests in recent months and weeks from local, state and federal leaders.
Today, Stroud said he feels the public's response to the Trust and SECoast's urging to contact the FRA with questions on the NEC Future plan, combined with some determined legislative leadership, helped turn the tide.
"My understanding is that [the FRA] received 8,000 public comments from December  to present. That's a huge number," he said. "I think the pressure we applied had a significant effect. Particularly, I think we've had great leadership from Senator Blumenthal and in South Eastern Connecticut from Congressman Joe Courtney; and [Congresswoman] Rosa DeLauro has engaged in the process significantly and had a great role to play."
It was through the efforts of groups like the Trust and SECoast that alarm bells began ringing on the NEC Future project over a year ago. In many towns, including Branford and Guilford, grassroots citizens' groups joined the effort to build public awareness to the plan.
"I've been working on this for 16 months, every day," said Stroud. "We were told by experts and politicians we'd never get the FRA to change it's planning. I would say that we have, and people really have been listening to the public -- but we're just not there yet."
With regard to what's ahead, Stroud said there is no question that FRA's decision to bring in the state DOTs as part of FRA's NEC Future planning process will help reach a better solution.
"We have had excellent bi-partisan support both in the State House in Connecticut and Rhode Island; and there's a lot of cooperation that already exists between Rhode Island and Connecticut," said Stroud. "And I think what we've seen at the CT Trust [with the I-84 project in Hartford] is when the Connecticut DOT takes the lead, they can run a good process. They've done a great job of involving the public, so our hope is that if the state DOT takes the lead, we might get a better process."
That being said, "...one of the questions we're asking now is when will this process happen; and who do they plan to include in the process," said Stroud.
He stressed the importance of keeping the process in the public eye and keeping the public involved.
"I think if the public remains engaged, that's sort of key; because I think we've shown that we can change the plan. The question is, can we arrive at good place?"
Even as those questions arise, Stroud recognizes the significance of the FRA's change of plan.
"We feel that we've taken a bad precedent and created a good precedent from this process," Stroud said. "This change is significant; and that doesn't normally happen. Still, there are real problems along the Northeast Corridor that are not going away."
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