Lawmakers Seek Ways To Improve Waterbury, Danbury Rail Lines [Hartford Courant]

February 14, 2013

Article as it appeared in the Hartford Courant


Despite Connecticut’s financial straits, two groups of legislators are pushing for upgrades of Metro-North’s Waterbury and Danbury branch lines.

The state can protect jobs and encourage new ones by upgrading the antiquated branches, say lawmakers from the Naugatuck Valley and the Norwalk to Danbury corridor. The transportation department, though, cautions that it already has a full plate of repair and restoration projects.

Connecticut leaders have talked for years about improving the Waterbury branch, where barebones infrastructure keeps Metro-North from running more than a few trains in each direction. Consultants have recommended adding sidings and signals that would improve the frequency of runs, but there’s no schedule for when any of that would happen.

State Rep. Theresa Conroy, D-Seymour, has introduced HB2020 to change that. It wouldn’t force the transportation department to begin the work, but would require it to line up funding sources this year.

“We are in challenging times. However, moving our state forward does not need to be placed on hold until we see better times,” Conroy said recently. “The Waterbury branch line is prominent in revitalizing our downtowns and moving forward to accomplishing transit-oriented development.

“Valley residents continue to pay their fair share of state taxes to help transportation needs of other areas of the state,” Conroy said. “It’s time for the [Lower Naugatuck] Valley to have the state invest in our community to help us on our path to improving our communities.”

For years, Waterbury has been the fastest-growing part of Metro-North’s New Haven system; ridership soared from 178,170 in 2006 to 393,596 in 2011. But last year, the numbers dipped to 384,480. Some commuter advocates say the infrequent service and absence of a convenient afternoon rush-hour return trip from Bridgeport are starting to hurt ridership.

New Canaan by far has the most modern of the three branches; it’s electrified, so its trains can continue on the main New Haven line all the way to Grand Central. The Danbury and Waterbury branches run diesel equipment that can’t go into New York.

Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, is backing two bills to improve service on the Danbury line.

“The Danbury line is perhaps the most antiquated [passenger] rail line in the country,” she said, since a conductor must climb down off a train to manually pull switches before two trains can pass.

Investing $40 million in electrifying the southernmost segment of the line would be an initial step, she said.

“I have systematically opposed bonding for such purposes as operating expenses. On the other hand, funding for crucial infrastructure maintenance and upgrades is an appropriate use of bonding,” Lavielle said.

One bill, HB5180, would issue bonds for the work. Her other bill, HB5253, would direct the DOT to sell land it bought for expanding Route 7 and use the proceeds to improve the Danbury branch.

“This rail line parallels the Route 7 corridor and has some of the most densely constructed and occupied corporate buildings in the entire southwest region, making it ideal for transit-oriented development,” said Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton.

Boucher, too, wants to phase in a long-term electrification project.

“This would produce [the] best return on investment for the state. Its affects the most people, has a direct impact on job growth, housing growth, business investment in the region,” Boucher said. “This is the life blood of the residents in this part of the state — not a ‘nice to have,’ but an absolute necessity. Southwestern Connecticut has the most used and congested rail lines in the nation for that reason.”

All three bills are with the transportation committee, which may either forward them to another committee, forward them for a full vote or let them expire when the session ends.

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