Passenger rail service may yet make its return
Published 4:29 pm, Thursday, January 15, 2015
Hopes in Greater New Milford for passenger rail service from Danbury to New Milford have been rekindled.
After years on the back burner, plans to improve commuter rail service to Danbury, and perhaps extend it as far north as New Milford, might be picking up steam.
While some improvements, including work on signals, have recently been made to Metro-North's Danbury branch, bigger enhancements, such as electrifying the line, remain in limbo.
That reality is frustrating not just to commuters, but also local leaders who see improvements as a key to economic growth.
Many officials say electrifying the Danbury branch is long overdue and, if it is finally done, it would reduce road congestion and make it easier to bring workers to their places of employment.
"I will be working to get this issue back on track," said state Rep. David Arconti Jr., of Danbury. "Now is the time to strike, so to speak, and to resurrect the recommendations for the Danbury branch line."
"The governor (Dannel P. Malloy) has made it very clear," he added, "that transportation and transportation infrastructure will be a top priority for his administration in his second term."
Municipal officials in the newly formed Western Connecticut Council of Governments are also making Danbury line improvements, including electrification, a priority in 2015.
Their starting point would be the state Department of Transportation's feasibility study on electrification of the line, a document that generated much interest when it came out in 2006 but which had since been all but shelved.
The study cited the need to relieve traffic congestion in the Route 7 corridor by making rail service more frequent and running times faster.
Extending the line
The study also proposes adding a station in Georgetown -- between the Cannondale and Branchville stops in the Ridgefield/Wilton area -- and extending the line northward, with stations in northern Danbury, Brookfield and New Milford.
Passenger rail service was last operated in 1971 north of Danbury to New Milford, and on northward to Pittsfield, Mass.
Possible station sites mentioned in the study for north of Danbury include the Danbury Corporate Park and along the west side of White Turkey Road.
Further north, proposed sites could be on the east side of Pocono Road and at the intersection of routes 202 and 25, although the Pocono Road site would be favored because the area around the 202 and 25 intersection, known as the Four Corners, is small with limited capacity for parking.
Brookfield First Selectman Bill Tinsley said he believes the Four Corners site is preferable.
"It would be the preferred site because of the development we plan there," Tinsley said. "We have the historical old station there now. And when people in Brookfield think of a station for passenger service in town, it would be at the Four Corners. I hope we see it in our lifetime."
Sites considered for a new station in New Milford range from Pickett District Road to Anderson Avenue to three spots in the village center.
Building a new station near downtown, the study noted, would require construction of a large parking garage.
Mayor Pat Murphy, a representative to the WCCOG, said she would like to see passenger rail service restored as far north as Pittsfield, Mass., as it was for much of the 19th century and up through the 1960s.
Not only would it provide commuter service to southern Fairfield County, but it would encourage tourist access to the Berkshires, she said
Housatonic Railroad, which owns the tracks used for freight trains through New Milford and northward, has been trying to accomplish that very thing.
"I like a tri-state approach, connecting the two river valleys, the Housatonic and the Hudson, in a loop," Murphy said.
For state Rep. Cecilia Buck-Taylor (R-67th), extending passenger service past New Milford and to the town of Kent makes sense.
"One of the bills I plan to present this session is to extend commuter rail line service at least as far as Kent," Buck-Taylor said. "I think extending service to Kent would be a good start."
The bigger picture
Judd Everhart, a spokesman for the state transportation department, said the Danbury branch study has been rolled into TransformCT, the DOT's long-range improvement project for all modes of state transportation.
The project's goal is to "rethink and transform" the state's transportation system to respond to residents' current needs and future lifestyles, according to the DOT TransformCT website.
"Further improvements to the Danbury branch line will be evaluated on a benefit-to-cost ratio with other major statewide projects," Everhart said.
He noted Gov. Dannel Malloy is talking about installing tolls on the state's interstate highways, something he believes would eventually happen.
If tolls were in place, transportation funding would increase and the state's infrastructure, including rail line improvements, could be funded, he said.
"The political clout of WCCOG remains to be seen," Cameron said. "But leaders like (state Sen.) Toni Boucher have been strong advocates for improvements to the line. I think the legislature will listen."
Boucher has said she will "keep a focus" on the Danbury branch line this legislative season.
"I have some bill proposals to modernize this line," Boucher said. "It has yet to realize its potential as an economic and real estate asset."
For an expanded version of this story, visit www.newmilfordspectrum.com.