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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Tracking the rail project in Wallingford

As published in the Record Journal, Monday August 8, 2011

By Mary Ellen Godin
Record-Journal staff
(203) 317-2255

WALLINGFORD — Travel speeds, downtown traffic, land acquisition and changes in the Judd Square area are some of the concerns being raised by the public over plans for commuter rail service from New Haven to Springfield, Mass.

Plans call for upgrading signals along the 62-mile stretch, which could begin as early as next spring. But locally, the public voiced concerns at a meeting last week over a proposal to move the train stop to Judd Square, with an elevated platform and parking for 200 cars.

The state Department of Transportation held the first of many informational sessions last Thursday with residents and town officials over where and how to lay out the new station. The rail line will increase commuter and inter-city service while also providing high-speed Acela transit along the corridor.

Springfield will become a central connector with service to Boston, Vermont and finally to Montreal. The project consists of double tracking 62 miles of track, upgrading the signals, building new stations in North Haven, Newington and Enfield, relocating Wallingford’s station and building new elevated platforms, walkways and parking garages in each town.

“Nothing has been set in stone,” said DOT Project Manager John Bernick.
He asked town officials to create a panel to act as an advisory board throughout the project.

Wallingford has the most crossings of any municipality along the corridor — 10, eight with signals and two unsignaled gates. The most heavily trafficked areas are Parker, Hall, Ward and Quinnipiac streets. The town now has five or six trains passing through per day. The rail project calls for 25.

Public officials have said they are concerned that more trains, which can go as fast as 110 mph, would pose a safety threat to residents and disrupt nearby businesses.

City Councilor Jerry Farrell opposed Amtrak’s taking any land from Most Holy Trinity Church. Bernick assured him that wouldn’t happen.

Farrell also he had concerns about 25 trains roaring through a very densely populated section of town every day. The crossings are at grade. He was assured that just because the trains had the potential to reach 110 mph didn’t mean they would travel that fast through Wallingford or other high density areas. “No matter where you place it or combine it, grade crossings are going to be a problem,” Bernick said.

A traffic study conducted by Wilbur Smith & Associates reviewed the traffic signals at Parker, Hall, Ward and Quinnipiac streets and gave several of them failing grades should the anticipated commuter and intercity service start with no changes in existing traffic routes. Solutions include some road widening in certain areas, signal changes and right-turn-only lanes.

Residents of Judd Square and the nearby area expressed concerns that their parking, already in short supply, would be impacted. Bernick said no parking would be taken away and Amtrak plans to use land now housing a warehouse for that purpose.

There were only rough schematics of the site, parking garage and walk-up from Route 5 because project leaders hope to gather more public input on the location of the new train platform and design specifications. Judd Square is not a definitive site — moving the stop several blocks to the north has also been discussed — but is the best for the project, Bernick said.

Councilor Craig Fishbein questioned the cost of the project and the amount Amtrak receives annually in subsidies to support its operation. He said that without an obvious demand by people working in other towns, he didn’t see how the operation could sustain itself. The cost of the project is set at $647 million, and a $110 million shortfall is expected for the Hartford-to-Springfield leg, which planners expect will come from the federal government.

“You would be better off giving the money to the people,” Fishbein said.

Bernick replied that demand has already been proven and the project will offer significant economic development opportunities to communities with train stations. He also said increased usage of Metro-North has made it the most profitable service in the U.S.

Other benefits are that the ability to travel to Boston and New York in one to two hours could make office space in Meriden or Wallingford more attractive. Shuttle buses to and from industrial parks are also a possibility and the station will connect with the public service bus lines.

The public meetings in the cities and towns along the rail line will become part of the environmental impact study expected this fall. Upgrades to the signals could begin as early as next spring, Bernick said.

Gail DeLucia, president of the Judd Square Homeowners Association, got on board with the project after she learned the residents would not lose any parking. She was careful to say she was speaking as an individual and not for the group. But the sluggish economy and job market offer more reasons to invite commerce and create jobs.

“We have to look to the future,” DeLucia said, “or we don’t get any solution.”

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