From Danbury to points north

Passenger rail service is again a hot topic

SPECTRUM/The venerable railroad bridge spanning Housatonic River just south iof the village center would get plenty more traffic if passenger serve were to be revived to New Milford and points north.
SPECTRUM/The venerable railroad bridge spanning Housatonic River just south iof the village center would get plenty more traffic if passenger serve were to be revived to New Milford and points north.Norm Cummings/Norm Cummings/Spectrum

The Housatonic Railroad Co. is pushing ahead with plans to some day again provide passenger rail service northward from Danbury, through New Milford and into Massachusetts.

Colin Pease, the railroad's vice president of special projects, said the company has launched an economic benefits study of the proposal that could be completed by the spring.

He said the study is a key component to getting low-interest loans and other assistance for the project from the Federal Railroad Administration.

"The study will provide communities in the region with sound information from which they can determine how the proposed service will impact their communities," Mr. Pease said.

He added the study will focus on five key areas, including increased income generation and employment opportunities, increased tourism and patronage to travel destinations, and increased demand for housing.

While the passenger service would benefit commuters, Mr. Pease said, there would also be significant opportunity for tourists traveling to northwest Connecticut and the Berkshire Hills.

"Northwest Connecticut and the Berkshires attract a lot of people from New York that would generate a lot of ridership," he said.

The state Department of Transportation is doing an environmental impact study, begun n November 2007, of extended passenger service north of Danbury.

A draft report is expected in late spring to early summer, with public hearings likely to be held in the fall.

Jonathan Chew, executive director of the Housatonic Valley Council of Elected Officials, the regional transportation planning agency, said the state study is taking longer to complete but involves a more detailed look at the potential impacts of expanding the line.

The study would also recommend what improvements to the Danbury line should be considered, including possibly electrifying all of the line or portions of it.

"Market studies, like the one being undertaken by Housatonic, typically can be completed a lot faster," Mr. Chew said.

Mr. Pease noted some type of environmental assessment would also be required if the railroad's plans were to run passenger service through to Pittsfield, Mass.

He's optimistic, however, a financial package could be put in place in about a year and construction could commence.

The project would take about three years to complete, and Mr. Pease estimates it would cost about $200 million.

The railroad company already has a rail line through the corridor used for freight service. It would have to be upgraded for passengers.

Mr. Pease said the rail company would finance a portion of the project and would also be seeking state and federal dollars.

While Mr. Pease knows public money is difficult to come by these days, he believes the increased ridership on the Danbury branch line resulting from expansion would more than pay for the debt service on any state bonding required.

State Rep. David Scribner, R-Brookfield, a ranking member of the legislature's transportation committee, said the argument made by Mr. Pease is reasonable.

"It's a logical assessment of what could happen," he said. "That doesn't necessarily mean it will, but logically any volume north of Danbury would be built on and use the existing track south of Danbury."

The lawmaker added he believes there may be support on the state level for a partnership with a private railroad to provide passenger service.

"Everywhere I go (in the district) I hear people talking about expanding rail service north," he said. "A lot of people are excited about it."

Both Rep. Scribner and Mayor Pat Murphy of New Milford said there are a lot of potential economic benefits for towns located along the proposed passenger line.

"This would provide a good alternative for commuters, but it also has a lot of potential for tourism," Mayor Murphy said.

"Between here and Pittsfield is some of the most beautiful scenery in the country," she added. "Think of all the bed and breakfasts, restaurants and other establishments that could benefit from this. There is a real opportunity here."

New Milford resident Bob Rush, a member of the Rail Service Restoration Society who has been lobbying for more than 15 years for the restoration of passenger service to New Milford, also sees a positive economic impact.

The last passenger train to run north of Danbury into New Milford was on April 30, 1971, according to the railroad company.

"How could it not be a positive?" Mr. Rush said about restoring the service. "Whether it's something that's around the corner, that remains to be seen. But it's exciting to see that the company is moving forward."

Mr. Rush added he has some doubts about the railroad's previous study, which was completed last year and estimated about two million riders would use the service annually.

Still, he remains positive about the prospect of passenger service returning to the line north of Danbury.

"I would love to see anything the railroad could do to make that happen," Mr. Rush said.

"How could it not be a positive? Whether it's something that's around the corner, that remains to be seen. But it's exciting to see that the company is moving forward."

Bob Rush

Rail Service Restoration Society