Passenger rail service along the northern line of the Housatonic Railroad may come sooner than Greater New Milford area residents had reason to hope.

Colin Pease, vice president of special projects for Housatonic, is hopeful a bill now before the Massachusetts legislature, coupled with a federal grant request by the Northwest Connecticut Council of Governments, would bring funding for requisite track improvements.

"We still have a long way to go, but the transportation bill in Massachusetts is one big building block along the way," Pease said Tuesday.

"We're now in a stage where we can identify funds for moving forward with construction."

The Massachusetts bill would bring restoration of 37 miles of track between Canaan and the line's northernmost stop, Pittsfield, Mass.

In Connecticut, nine miles of track restoration could take place in Kent, Cornwall and Canaan via potential federal grant money.

"We're definitely encouraged by what we're hearing from Massachusetts," said Luigi Fulinello, New Milford's economic development supervisor.

"Passenger rail service eventually coming through New Milford would generate economic growth and drive our tourist industry, as well as providing transportation for workers to Fairfield and Westchester counties," he said.

"Depending on the location of a New Milford (rail) station, it could strengthen the downtown and village center, bringing people into town."

Kelly Smith, spokeswoman with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, explained Gov. Deval Patrick's transportation plan.

"The governor's plan, called `The Way Forward,' calls for $113.8 million to allow for rehabilitation of tracks, signals and structures between Pittsfield and the Massachusetts/Connecticut border in order to support future rail service between New York City and Pittsfield," Smith said.

Pease noted the Massachusetts legislature's reworking of Patrick's $1 billion transportation plan may equate to less than the full $113.8 million for rails, but Patrick's plan was incorporated in Massachusetts' recently approved budget.

As a result, significant funds are anticipated, he said.

A transportation study is also underway by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.

It would locate best sites for passenger stations and ways to coordinate rail service with buses, rental cars, bicycles and trackless trollies from the station sites, Pease said.

"Fortunately, we're in an age now with recognition by state and federal officials of the importance of rail travel and supporting that infrastructure," Pease said.

"Senator Richard Blumenthal and (Congresswoman) Elizabeth Esty are strong proponents of infrastructure improvements," he added.

Bob Rush of the Rail Service Restoration Society in New Milford finds Pease's news encouraging.

"It's very hopeful and positive," Rush said. "Hopefully Connecticut will respond in kind to Massachusetts lead."

"At least people are thinking about public transportation," he concluded. "They're starting to realize trains are something integral in our future."

stuz@newstimes.com; 860-355-7322