DANBURY -- Housatonic Railroad Co. is continuing to push ahead with its plans to provide passenger rail service from Danbury north 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.

The study, he said, 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," Pease said.

He added that 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, Pease said, there is also significant opportunity for tourists traveling to northwest Connecticut and the Berkshire Mountains.

"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 of extended passenger service north of Danbury.

That study began in November 2007 and a draft report is expected in late spring to early summer, with public hearings likely to be held in the fall.

Jon 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 looked at the potential impacts of expanding the line.

The study will also recommend what improvements to the Danbury line should be considered, including 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," Chew said.

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

More Information

About the study Housatonic Railroad officials are studying the economic benefits of extending passenger service north from Danbury to Pittsfield, Mass. The study will examine five effects of the proposed service: Increased income generation and employment opportunities Increased tourism and use of travel destinations Increased demand for second homes in the region Potential for decreased travel and congestion on local roadways Environmental benefits of increased rail use instead of automobiles

He's optimistic, however, that 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 Pease estimates it would cost about $200 million.

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

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

While Pease knows public money is difficult to come by these days, he believes the increased ridership on the Danbury Branch line that would result 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 Pease makes is a reasonable one.

"It's a logical assessment of what could happen. 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," he said.

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 Scribner and New Milford Mayor Pat Murphy 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," Murphy said.

"Between here and Pittsfield is some of the most beautiful scenery in the country. 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?" 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."

Rush added that 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," Rush said.

Contact Dirk Perrefort at dperrefort@newstimes.com

or at 203-731-3358.