Transit chief has big hopes for Western Mass. rail

Urges continued interstate talks

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (center, with Senator Christopher Dodd at right and Connecticut Transportation Commissioner Joseph Marie) said New England is ripe for rail. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (center, with Senator Christopher Dodd at right and Connecticut Transportation Commissioner Joseph Marie) said New England is ripe for rail. (Jessica Hill/ Associated Press)
By Susan Haigh
Associated Press / April 27, 2010

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HARTFORD — Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood encouraged Connecticut officials yesterday to work with Massachusetts and the federal government to introduce high-speed commuter rail service to the region, saying it will probably be one of the first completed projects in the nation.

LaHood, at the state Capitol with state and federal officials, said the planned service linking New Haven, Hartford, and Springfield, fits with President Obama’s vision of using intercity high-speed rail to spur economic development.

“Connecticut has its act together, and Connecticut will be connected with intercity high-speed passenger rail because of the cooperation between the state government, the federal government, and the opportunities that are created for the money that may be available in the future,’’ he said.

The federal government has awarded $40 million to Connecticut for the project, money that is being used to help construct a second set of tracks in stretches where there is only a single track.

Joseph Marie, Connecticut’s transportation commissioner, said the state will apply for a second round of funding worth more than $40 million.

Connecticut must match 20 percent of the federal funding.

Advocates hope a high-speed rail corridor will be operational by 2014 or 2016. The state must submit various studies to federal officials to receive additional funding.

“All of us have the same goal, the same desire, and that is to have high-speed, real high-speed rail service, in the corridor, in the heart of New England,’’ said Governor M. Jodi Rell of Connecticut, a Republican.

“If we can meet a timetable and be as aggressive as we have planned, then I think we will be the first in the nation to accomplish that,’’ she said.

In October, Massachusetts received $70 million in federal stimulus funding to rebuild the rail line to Vermont.

Timothy W. Brennan — executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, based in Springfield — said that will help speed up trips on Amtrak, which has been forced to take a circuitous route because of the poor condition of the tracks.

He said there is a chance that commuter rail might someday be continued past Springfield, to places like Holyoke and Northampton. But the next step is to conduct a study of the feasibility of linking Western Massachusetts to Boston with frequent rail service.

Full-fledged commuter rail service on the 64-mile New Haven-Hartford-Springfield corridor ended about 40 years ago with the demise of the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad.

Amtrak has owned and controlled the train tracks since 1971, providing limited service. Reviving commuter service has been hampered over the years because of the single-track stretches.

“This has been a dream for a long time, and now the aspiration is right in front of us,’’ said US Representative Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat.

Thousands of people commute between Massachusetts and Connecticut daily. Brennan said many people drive to New Haven to catch trains that travel to New York and Washington.

Yesterday morning, LaHood rode with Connecticut officials on the Amtrak line from New Haven to Hartford. US Senator Christopher Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, said it was a chance to see the opportunities for the commuter line, passing by possible stops in places like Wallingford and Meriden.

Eight to 11 stops are under consideration for the corridor.

But Dodd said the idea of high-speed rail extends far beyond such stops.

“It’s not just connecting two cities or three cities,’’ he said. “This is the portal to New England and transit systems, not just for Connecticut and Massachusetts, but on through Vermont, connecting Boston to New York, on down to Washington. It is absolutely essential.’’

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