Push is on to electrify Danbury rail line [Norwalk Citizen]

February 5, 2013

Push is on to electrify Danbury rail line

By Martin B. Cassidy

Speeding up the electrification of the Metro-North Danbury rail line would provide economic benefits for nearby towns and dissuade commuters from using other stations that offer better service, state Rep. Gail Lavielle said Monday.

Lavielle and another Wilton Republican, state Sen. Toni Boucher, the ranking member of the Connecticut General Assembly’s Transportation Committee, spoke at a public hearing Tuesday urging support for a bill to prioritize the $330 million project to install overhead power on the 23.2 mile line.

But the state’s top transportation official didn’t offer much encouragement.

Department of Transportation Commissioner Jim Redeker said that budget constraints and the fact that other projects already have been given the green light means the electrification work is likely to take years.

“I still view it as a long-term project,” Redeker said.

Lavielle said that stations along the Danbury line, such as Ridgefield, Wilton, and Redding, are underused because riders from those towns choose other stops along the main line where electrification allows more frequent and convenient runs.

“There are also about eight or nine other communities like Weston and New Canaan and so on that are close enough to the line to be used by residents of those towns and would be in any case if there was more frequent service, which we’re moving towards and faster service, which we don’t have,” Lavielle told the committee.

Boucher said that the DOT should consider completing the electrification work in stages to make travel on the Danbury line more appealing to residents in the Route 7 corridor.

“When it comes to our branch lines they have not been looked at in a way that is quite equitable in the past,” Boucher said. “” We need focus and long-term planning on the future of that rail line that is absolutely tied to the local economy with jobs, construction, and renovations … We’d like you to take another look at some phasing for that line.“

Lavielle, who is the ranking Republican on the transportation subcommittee of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, said she would also lobby to use some of the $40 million to $50 million expected to be made available overall for transit improvements to the Danbury project.

Regional business leaders back the rapid electrification of the line because they hope service can be extended to Newtown, New Milford and perhaps beyond, Lavielle said.

“This is a project that you could spend on and get a beneficial result that isn’t speculative,” Lavielle said.

Lavielle also testified in support of a proposed law that would block legislators from diverting gas tax and other revenue streams designated for the state’s Special Transportation Fund to cover budget gaps or general government expenses.

Last spring, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy diverted nearly $70 million from the Special Transportation Fund to help cover the state’s budget deficit. The fund is used to pay for transit and highway projects.

“We need the money to do what we need to do,” Lavielle said. “Not only is it a question of urgent needs to upgrade infrastructure, but also safety, and if we don’t keep the money we need for those needs I really fear for the condition of our roads and transit.”