Old Lyme, a quaint town of about 8,000 located on the southeast coast of Connecticut, is at the center of a heated regional debate about how best to improve the state’s aging railroad infrastructure.
Although several infrastructure development plans are being weighed by the Federal Railroad Administration, the current frontrunner would see new tracks built across a large swath of southeastern Connecticut and southern Rhode Island, including through the heart of Old Lyme — which is a roughly 40-minute drive from New Haven. Old Lyme has long been regarded as one of southeastern Connecticut’s premier cultural landmarks. The town boasts more than 100 nationally registered structures as well as a national landmark: The Florence Griswold House and Museum. Old Lyme has also been acclaimed as a nationally famous artists colony, and is seen as one of the birthplaces of the American Impressionist style of painting. Old Lyme residents, concerned with maintaining the historical integrity of their 350-year old town, have rallied to fight the plan.
“This plan … would decimate our community,” Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder said.
Although the FRA has not yet finalized their recommendations in regards to development in Old Lyme, FRA spokesman Marc Willis said his department is well on the way to making a decision and hopes to present a formal recommendation later this year. He noted that the FRA’s suggestion will not be binding, but that it will reflect the broad variety of opinions Northeast corridor commuters have about how best to create a faster, more reliable passenger rail service.
“The recommendation will be just that — a recommendation — for a path forward,” he said.
“Alternative 1,” the plan that Old Lyme residents fear the FRA will endorse, would have tracks built through downtown Old Lyme — the home of many historically significant 19th- and 18th-century structures. These landmarks would be leveled to make way for the tracks, slicing Old Lyme in half.
Old Lyme officials did not minse their words when asked about the impact of such a course of action on their town.
John Pfeiffer, Old Lyme’s town historian and the head of the Old Lyme Historical District Commission, said “Alternative 1” would be nothing short of “catastrophic.”
“The proposal would take a huge bite out of the historical district and everything else we’ve come to know as Old Lyme,” he said.
Most opponents of “Alternative 1” readily admit that the need for some course of action to save Connecticut’s railways is pressing. Much of Connecticut’s current railroad infrastructure is greatly outdated. Connecticut’s trains run on tracks that are, in some cases, over a century old, and through tunnels that were dug before the Civil War. Statistics from an FRA press release last year held that, in 30 years, 6 million more people will live along the Northeast Corridor, and that aging lines, limited tracks and choke points will mean slow, unsatisfactory train service if a solution is not reached.
But “Alternative 1” is not the only option the FRA is weighing.
Another option calls for a new line from Hartford through eastern Connecticut. A more ambitious plan would have tracks built from Westchester County, New York to central Connecticut, and construct a tunnel under the Long Island Sound to connect southern Connecticut and Long Island rail lines.
Reemsnyder said she preferred Alternative 2, which would see tracks built from Hartford towards Storrs, home of the University of Connecticut. But she noted she is worried that “another community would be negatively impacted as well.” This sentiment was echoed by other Old Lyme officials and residents.
As the impending FRA recommendation looms overhead, the citizens of Old Lyme show no signs of backing down.
At an at-capacity meeting to discuss the building of tracks in their town, more than 500 Old Lyme residents showed up to express their grievances. Additionally, Reemsnyder stated that out of the 3,000 comments on the FRA’s website concerning the possible courses of action for the Northeast Corridor, more than 1,200 came from Old Lyme’s 8,000 residents. When asked whether the citizens of Old Lyme would take action if a plan such as Alternative 1 was passed, Reemsnyder said plans of action have been discussed and were under consideration.
Pfeiffer said the residents of Old Lyme are proud of their town’s heritage and, over the years, have acted to preserve its historical integrity by limiting new development and protecting existing structures in Old Lyme’s historical downtown.
Pfeiffer called Old Lyme “a fantastic piece of American history and Connecticut Valley culture.”