State Sen. Toni Boucher: Upgrading Danbury branch line should be a top priority [Danbury News Times]

February 14, 2013

Editorial as it appeared in the Danbury News Times

Opening in 1852, the Danbury branch line still uses diesel powered trains that push train cars to Norwalk to catch the New Haven main line and pull train cars to Danbury.

It is a single-tracked rail line and is not electrified like some on the system.

I have joined fellow Wilton State Rep. Gail Lavielle in supporting HB 5180 An Act Authorizing Bonds Of The State To Electrify The Danbury Branch Of The Metro North Railroad. This proposed bill that would make this branch line compatible with the Metro-North main line allowing for straight through trips, improved performance and increased capacity on this important commuter rail system.

The Norwalk/Danbury railway is a lifeline to our urban centers of Fairfield County and New York. Even those who do not often take this rail line rely on it as a key to sustaining property values, protecting their environment and improving their quality of life.

This is why, now that improvements to our service are in sight, those of us who have spent years fighting for them must intensify our efforts to maintain the momentum for rail improvements and ensure that we get the results that commuters in Fairfield County have been waiting for.

This branch line is a main artery to the Metro-North main line — the most used and congested rails line in the country — and one of the state’s most important economic activity zones.

It connects two of our region’s most important urban centers, Norwalk and Danbury, and all the towns in between.
It links nearly 400,000 people to their jobs, families and arts and entertainment venues.

Yet it is one of the most antiquated rail lines in the country.

During a recent public hearing on our proposed bill, I asked State Transportation Commissioner James Redeker if he would support a phased-in electrification of the branch line.

Commissioner Redeker answered it is something the state should be working toward. He considers the branch lines around the state are “gems that need investing in” and there could be major benefits to pursuing a phased-in energizing of the Danbury branch line.

How would the state pay for the project? There is roughly $40 million of state funding available in bonding for mass transit. It could be applied to electrifying the southernmost segment of the Danbury branch line, as an initial step in electrifying the entire line.

The investment in infrastructure could produce a good return for the state. It affects the most people, has a direct impact on job and housing growth, business investment in the region and a real boost to transit oriented development projects already underway.

One only needs to visit the Merritt Parkway 7 corridor to see the complex of businesses thriving there.

Yes, train riders would benefit the most by upgrades. But new businesses and housing developments in the corridor that are under design or have been completed will also benefit greatly from access to more frequent, reliable and convenient trains.

Even if you live in a town that is not on the Norwalk/Danbury rail line, its upgrade is important for you.

Securing the economic vitality of the region, enhancing home values, relieving road congestion and reducing pollution are just a few of the many benefits.

Some commuters from Ridgefield actually board a shuttle bus each morning to get to the New York Harlem line that has much better service than the Danbury branch line.

New York local elected leaders have called me to ask that our state fix our line so their residents do not need to compete for seats and parking spaces with Connecticut commuters.

I have supported efforts to upgrade this line for more than a decade. It has taken 14 years to just modernize the manual signal system while other lines moved forward into the 21st century.

In 2010, the federal and state government helped by investing in computerizing the signals for Norwalk/Danbury branch line after a long hard-fought battle to avert a complete shut-down of the line.

It is now time to move forward and electrify the Danbury branch so it is compatible with the main New Haven line.

This necessary upgrade will go far in alleviating stress on many other congested train stations throughout Fairfield County.

Thankfully, we have entered a time when rail is once again valued.

Commuters in the region recognize that the Norwalk to Danbury rail line is not a nice to have mode of transportation but an absolute necessity, vital to this region’s economy and a critical economic asset of the state.

Our continuing challenge will be to not only modernize this branch line now, but also to meet its future needs.

State Sen. Toni Boucher is ranking member on the Transportation Committee. She is a Republican who represents the 26th District, which includes Ridgefield, Redding and Bethel.

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