Legislation would upgrade Housatonic Railroad

By Terry Cowgill, in the Berkshire Record

GREAT BARRINGTON—Advocates for the return of passenger rail to the Berkshires no doubt see a glimmer of hope in the actions of public officials in Connecticut, whose cooperation is essential if service is to be restored from New York City.

A pair of Connecticut lawmakers

[note: we’re told that there are a total of four bills filed in CT] have proposed separate bills that call on the state to upgrade portions of the line currently used for right by Housatonic Railroad.

Rep. Cecilia Buck-Taylor (R-New Milford) wants to expand and upgrade the line for passenger service from Danbury to Kent, while in a separate piece of proposed legislation, Rep. Roberta Willis (D-Salisbury) has called on the state to upgrade the line for both freight and passenger service all the way to the Massachusetts line.

Buck-Taylor could not be reached for comment but her spokesman Bryan Sundie told The Record she did not wish to comment on her bill until it receives a public hearing before the state Legislature’s transportation committee.

Sundie said Buck-Taylor’s bill has been slated for a public hearing before the committee but the date has not yet been set. Willis, whose district stretches north of Kent to include several towns along the Housatonic Railroad tracks to the state line at Sheffield, said her bill will also receive a public hearing. She is more optimistic about its prospects now than she would have been a year ago because Democratic Goy. Dan Malloy, newly reelected to a second term, has vowed to make transportation his administration’s top priority.

“Once I heard him declare that, I felt as though if we did not act, the train would leave the station without us,” Willis said in an interview. “I wanted to make sure rail was a part of our future in northwest Connecticut.”

The success or failure of Willis’ bill could have significant implications for the future of passenger rail in the Berkshires. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation announced last summer it had reached an agreement to buy the Berkshire County portion of the railroad tracks currently used for freight traffic from Housatonic Rail road for a little more than $12.1 million.

The money for the purchase comes from $113 million set aside by the administration of then-Gov. Deval Patrick to rebuild track infrastructure in anticipation of the revival of passenger rail service between New York City, Danbury, Conn., and Pittsfield. But the project cannot come to fruition un less the state of Connecticut decides to move forward with significant improvements to its own tracks.

So far, Malloy administration officials have been noncommittal about upgrading the tracks. Last year in a radio interview, Transportation Commissioner James Redeker reiterated the state’s commitment to ensuring the viability of freight service on the Housatonic line but would not say if the administration wanted to move forward with passenger service.

Malloy himself, when asked if Connecticut would commit to upgrade the Housatonic line to passenger rail specs, sounded skeptical and suggested Berkshire County, with its superior cultural amenities, might have more to gain than Connecticut. “If we’re going to go down that road, some negotiations are needed to decide who pays for what,” Malloy told a gathering of Democrats in Cornwall. ‘It would appear that although it would be nice for us, it would be great for them.”

But Willis is convinced her district would also have much to gain from passenger rail — not only from the obvious standpoint of increased tourism, but from the effect better rail infrastructure will have on employment. Corporate giant Becton Dickinson, for example, is trying to hire additional workers to make syringes at its sprawling Canaan plant, but the company is having difficulty recruiting workers even in this sluggish economy. Passenger rail would help the company improve the breadth of its labor pool, she explained.

Moreover, the poor condition of the tracks between Danbury and the state line at Sheffield has no doubt played a role in several Housatonic Railroad derailments over the last few years.

Therefore, the purpose of Willis’ bill is not only to protect the continuing operation of freight service to hex region’s five major industries and employers, but “to protect environmentally sensitive areas that this railroad runs through by improving the infrastructure to prevent derailments, and to operate a passenger rail service from New York City up through our region to support the regional economy,” according to the language of the proposed legislation.

“When you repair the rails to passenger and have higher-speed conditions, it benefits everybody,” Willis said. “It makes sense in so many respects. We shouldn’t be short sighted.”

Karen Christensen, who heads The Train Campaign, a passenger rail advocacy group based in the Berkshires, told The Record she agrees that freight traffic is a key piece of the proposal.

“The key thing here is that tourist traffic is only one leg of the stool. Supporting existing—and new—businesses with improved freight lines is the second,” Christensen said. “The third is sustainable economic development that will occur because our regions will be far more attractive to young entrepreneurs and investors when we are connected again by passenger rail to New York, and to the world.”

Christensen is among the Berkshire County passenger rail boosters who will speak at a rally Saturday at noon at the historic train station in downtown Canaan. The rally is sponsored by Restore The Northwest Connecticut Railway. “The Train Campaign has seen our progress in Massachusetts as a catalyst — it’s the progress we now make together that’s the key, and we’re looking forward to being part of the new initiatives in Connecticut,” Christensen said.

Source: The Berkshire Record, January 28, 2015