After Amtrak announced the route for its proposed new high speed rail line in the Northeast — which promises to deliver passengers from Boston to Washington, D.C., in just over three hours — city officials began a vigorous campaign against a program that they argue will leave New Haven in the dust.
The current railroad infrastructure in the Northeast Corridor — the main rail artery north of Washington — runs through New Haven, Stamford and Bridgeport on its way to Boston. But in late July Amtrak announced it wants the new $151 billion high speed line, jointly developed with the Federal Railroad Administration, to bypass the three coastal Connecticut cities and stop in Danbury, Waterbury and Hartford instead. With the Sept. 14 deadline to submit project comments to the FRA rapidly approaching, city officials are working to build grassroots opposition to a project that they say could damage the Elm City economy and cripple Union Station, currently the tenth busiest rail station in the U.S. with over 700,000 annual passengers.
“The best way to grow jobs and strengthen New Haven is to get us to New York in one hour. With high speed rail, that is possible,” said Elizabeth Benton ’04, City Hall spokeswoman. “The City of New Haven and the New Haven Economic Development Corporation are working to make residents and businesses aware that current plans bypass New Haven, and to alert residents to opportunities to voice their views on the matter.”
In a July letter explaining the new rail line, Amtrak president and CEO Joe Boardman said the route was designed to “accommodate more trains, operate at faster speeds with significantly reduced trip-times, and improve service and reliability to meet long-term mobility and economic development needs.” But local critics said that by re-routing the line through inland Connecticut cities — which may allow for faster and cheaper construction due to more open terrain — project administrators are prioritizing cost over ridership.
While Amtrak said it plans to continue investing in the older line through 2025, and expects to complete the new line by 2040, city officials said they are concerned that a new line will eventually lead Amtrak to ignore existing infrastructure along the shoreline.
“We have the highest percentage of people who take alternative transportation to work in the state,” said Ross Hicks, who works at the Economic Development Corporation of New Haven. “You can put a train anywhere and make it go really fast, but it doesn’t matter if no one rides it.”
To fight the proposed route, City Hall, local government offices and community activists have begun what Hicks calls a “coordinated effort” to get the message out. Those involved are targeting New Haven residents and businesses to explain the issue and direct letters, phone calls and comments to the FRA.
As part of the outreach effort, the Economic Development Corporation of New Haven is circulating a letter among locals that states “the city is very concerned about any route which skips New Haven and they strongly encourage you to write a letter to the FRA to provide your thoughts.” The EDC’s mailing includes a template letter addressed to the FRA that voices strong opposition to the plan under consideration.
Hicks said the outreach has generated “much better responses than anticipated,” with calls coming into his office immediately after the mailing was first sent out. He added that although “the Feds are open to hear us out,” the government’s reaction to the public sentiment has been subdued.
“It’s been very quiet. The FRA scheduled most of the public hearings in late August which is when most people are on vacation,” Hicks said. “The project has been kept mostly under wraps at the Federal level so now we are starting to ramp up.”
The next-generation rail project would erect 427 miles of two-way rail track capable of accommodating trains at speeds up to 220 mph.