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OP-ED | Kudos To Malloy For Not Taking The Bay State Rail Bait

by Terry D. Cowgill | Aug 1, 2014 4:30am
(10) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Economic Development, Opinion, Transportation

terry cowgill / ctnewsjunkie

Signs such as this one on Route 44 in Salisbury are popping up in northwest Connecticut calling for the restoration of passenger rail service.


It’s an immutable law of physics that the government will always grow and become more expensive, causing our tax burden to grow right along with it. Over the years, I’ve passed up few opportunities to point this out. But when state government shows some restraint even amid public pressure to do otherwise, congratulations are very much in order.

To my pleasant surprise, the Malloy administration and the state Department of Transportation are balking at spending hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade freight lines, currently used by Housatonic Railroad, to bring passenger rail service north from Danbury up to Pittsfield, Mass.

Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation announced it will spend $12 million to acquire that state’s section of the line from the state border at Canaan, Conn., where Housatonic Railroad is headquartered, 37 miles north to Pittsfield in central Berkshire County. The administration of Gov. Deval Patrick has already set aside $113 million for the project.

Disclosure: I work as a newspaper editor in the Berkshires and would like nothing more than to see that aging region receive an economic shot in the arm, along with the younger demographic railroad passengers would surely bring. But as a Connecticut taxpayer, I have an obligation to ask myself what’s in it for my state? The answer, as far as I can tell, is nothing.

Just about everyone, including me, likes the idea of passenger rail service service up the length of the Housatonic Valley. After all, the railroad is a proud piece of our heritage. And a diesel locomotive pulling railcars full of people has a smaller carbon footprint than dozens of automobiles carrying those people to the same destination as the rail line.

But as is often the case, the devil is in the details. A consulting group hired by Housatonic Railroad initially projected a median ridership of 2 million one-way fares per year — a figure no one could repeat with a straight face. The number was eventually adjusted down to 1 million, but it still strains credulity.

Also at the behest of Housatonic Railroad, a Williams College economics professor conducted a recent study predicting that passenger trains running to and from the Berkshires and Manhattan could increase economic output by $344 million in the Berkshires during the first 10 years of construction and service.

Be that as it may, let’s say the new projection is accurate and a million people who are otherwise unwilling or unable to drive a car, visit the Berkshires each year. Where does that leave Connecticut?

Western Connecticut is already served by Metro-North commuter trains that travel to Danbury and Waterbury. And Metro-North’s Harlem line extends 35 miles farther north than Danbury, along the border to Wassaic, N.Y., servicing even Connecticut’s far northwest corner and southern Berkshire County. Clearly, western Connecticut already is well served by passenger rail.

If extended from Danbury, Housatonic Railroad’s passenger service would travel through New Milford, Kent, Cornwall, Falls Village and Canaan — all fine towns, but they simply do not have the cultural offerings available in the Berkshires. Why spend the weekend in the backwoods of Cornwall or Canaan when you can travel a little farther north, stay in Canyon Ranch and enjoy Tanglewood, Shakespeare & Company, and Jacob’s Pillow?

In other words, if this rail plan comes to pass, western Connecticut will be little more than flyover country for the culturally inclined who will sit in air conditioned passenger cars, connect their devices to wifi and spend their disposable income at out-of-state destinations.

State Sen. Clark Chapin, R-New Milford, whose district includes almost the entire length of the Connecticut portion of Housatonic’s line, told me there is a lot of support among his constituents for the passenger project, as evidenced by an unscientific online survey he conducted recently in which almost 900 people responded. More than 80 percent said they supported the concept, but most said they would not ride it very often.

When I contacted Connecticut DOT spokesman Judd Everhart last week, he told me passenger service north of Danbury “would be great” but there is no funding in the state budget for it because it’s simply “not a priority.”

And it’s no wonder. We have lot of more important transportation needs in this state: a $570 million busway that will connect New Britain and Hartford; an ancient and malfunctioning train bridge in Norwalk; a New Haven-Hartford-Springfield high-speed commuter rail line, which is currently under construction and to which the state has committed hundreds of millions of dollars. Oh, and we still have to fix our roads, which the White House recently judged to be the worst in the nation.

If officials in Massachusetts want rail service to the Berkshires, let them pay for it — all of it. And kudos to the Malloy administration for not taking the bait.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.

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(10) Comments

posted by: shinningstars122 | August 1, 2014  7:18pm

shinningstars122

Mmmm… from your bio you clearly have a conflict of interest.

We all know the Berkshires do a fabulous job in marketing their area to tourists.

Yes they have Tanglewood but we have Infinity Hall and Music Mountain, both in the same town, which is adjacent to Canaan.

They have the Mahaiwe, only 600 seats, we have the majestic Warner Theater 1770 seats.

In many ways Litchfield county is not as gentrified as the southern Berkshires, which to me is a turn off, can be.

I think that regional tourism is a must for this area, which is my home.

Honestly we can have smart growth in this economic area and attract younger people to settle in this area too.

The railroad will have positive benefits if CT goes after it and lets people know what we have to offer.

I mean Toho and Winsted both have growing art communities plus in many ways we have more charm and rustic beauty than the southern Berkshires.

Plus there are many weekends during the summer season so you could explore Tanglewood one weekend, Kent and Washington another.

See a show in New Milford one night and spend the next day in historic Litchfield.

Plus the Revolutionary Connecticut campaign was very successful and needs to be broaden.

Finally this line can carry more freight and benefit industry like logging and manufacturing for example.

Shall I go on?

I think the solution is that some mutual cooperation between states is in all of our best interests here in both Litchfield and Berkshire counties.

posted by: Is12speed | August 1, 2014  9:51pm

It would be refreshing to have a reporter have a new perspective on mass transportation instead of the old and tired this works somewhere but not here or we need to continue to put money into our highways. We have heard reporters as yourself say the same things about all of the transportation initiatives you mention in you article. Please tell me of one mass transit project which has failed to meet its goals in the state of ct? The only ones that provide absolutely $0 dollar offset and is 100% subsidized is our roadways please take a 21st century approach to your thought process you are stuck in the70’s

posted by: Joebigjoe | August 4, 2014  6:29am

I’m waiting for that train bridge in Norwalk to fail where they cant close it and then watch all hell break loose down there. Republicans will of course get blamed but that one is all on our Governor, legislature and Senators.

posted by: Bluecoat | August 4, 2014  8:25am

I would refer to one of America’s best and hardest working Bands:
Big Head Todd and the Monsters - “People Train” - 2010
“I don’t want to ride on no People Train, I want to leave when I want”

Why do we as taxpayers let the “Wizards of Smart” keep telling us that Mass transit in the savior to all our problems, when it just creates more and more waste. It has been reported but not fully explained why CT Taxpayers must foot the bill for the Busway to nowhere that will apparently will cost over 12 million dollars a year to run and operate, but the ridership fees will hardly cover any of this.

posted by: GuilfordResident | August 4, 2014  10:44am

The only reason to take a train is b/c it is much faster than driving to offset the convenience of driving. If they want this railway to work, they need to add a few more bottlenecks along 8 and 91.

posted by: Terry D. Cowgill | August 4, 2014  2:30pm

Terry D. Cowgill

Interesting comments here. @shinningstars122 I disclosed in the column (not just in the bio) that I work in the Berkshires. Perhaps you could explain how this is a conflict of interest. Enlighten me.

posted by: justsayin | August 4, 2014  8:57pm

This was a good idea to pass on. List the things CT needs, use the greater good approach, and this is way down the list. It sounds romantic but nobody can do an ROI to support it. Next….

posted by: Is12speed | August 5, 2014  2:41pm

Ok lets see ROI
highways 100% Subsidized by the Taxpayer
Airlines close to 70% Subsidized by the Taxpayer ,,,still can’t leave when i want or even when they advertise and I have to be strip searched and get there 2 hours in advance to sit around in a subsided airport ..at least the rail line would provide maybe little but some funding unlike the other modes of transport also look around the country and world and see how mass transit works

posted by: shinningstars122 | August 7, 2014  5:01am

shinningstars122

Terry you are not one for sarcasm are you?

I am sure that you paper prefers, as well as its advertising revenue, that the Southern Berkshires have no tourism competition from NW CT.

posted by: Matt W. | August 8, 2014  3:15pm

Matt W.

Seems to me that adding 1 million riders to Metro North with no additional cost to them might be considered a benefit. This line also runs parallel to Rt 7 which I believe has quite a traffic problem.  It also runs along the Housatonic River which suggests the possibility for all kinds of recreational opportunities.  It also hauls freight to the largest employers in Western CT: Kimberly Clark, Beckton Dickinson and Specialty Minerals among others. I’d say that’s worth something.