PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A proposal to have Amtrak’s new high-speed rail line bypass Rhode Island is now off the table.
On Friday, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) unveiled a new proposal that eliminates a controversial plan that would have skirted Providence by running Boston-New York trains through Worcester and Connecticut instead. The proposal is part of an initiative called “NEC Future,” a project designed to overhaul Amtrak’s busy Northeast Corridor (NEC), which connects Washington, D.C., and Boston by train.
Local leaders, including Democratic U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, had been vocal opponents of Rhode Island being bypassed. Reed is the top Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee that allocates Amtrak funding.
“One of the key points we’ve made emphatically is that Providence station has to be a key part of the Northeast Corridor and that’s been accepted by the secretary of transportation and everyone else,” Reed told Eyewitness News earlier this month. “It has to be an integral part because it’s important not only to Rhode Island but to the whole region.”
Ultimately, officials from the FRA agreed.
“In order to keep moving forward, we need a new vision for the Northeast Corridor – a corridor that can move an ever-increasing population safer, faster and more reliably than before,” FRA Administrator Sarah E. Feinberg said in a statement.
“We need a corridor that provides more options and more trains for commuters,” she said. “One that allows for seamless travel between the nation’s capital and New York, and New York and Providence and Boston. A corridor that provides streamlined connections between a city’s airports and its city center. And a corridor that can efficiently and reliably serve a population that is growing quickly.”
The decision on high-speed rail is just one of a number of ways the newly unveiled proposal envisions changing train service in Rhode Island.
The refined proposal includes a new segment of track between Old Saybrook, Connecticut, and the village of Kenyon in Richmond, Rhode Island, which had received heavy criticism from residents of historic Old Lyme. Residents and opponents there expressed concern that the new tracks would run through historic communities.
Eyewitness News asked the FRA if any homes or businesses in the path of the proposed tracks in Rhode Island would need to be moved or demolished for construction of the railroad. A spokesman said an environmental impact study would be done to determine the specific route and its alignment if the plan is approved.
According to FRA renderings and documents, the new, two-track segment would run “primarily on embankment or at-grade, continuing from New London County, CT, east through Westerly, RI, adjacent to the NEC, shifting south through Branford and Wood River Junction, reconnecting to the NEC in Kenyon, north of the Pawcatuck River.”
As of now, the precise route hasn’t been mapped, but a spokesman said no existing Rhode Island Amtrak stations would be eliminated.
The FRA said new track segments – like the one being proposed for South County – would be able to accommodate trains travelling at 220 miles per hour. Currently, trains can only reach speeds of 150 miles per hour on certain portions of track north of New York.
The proposal unveiled Tuesday also includes the integration of the Northeast Corridor with the railway currently connecting New Haven with Springfield, Massachusetts, by way of Hartford. The FRA plans to upgrade that route and offer more service.
A previous proposal to connect Providence with Hartford has been scrapped, after the FRA heard concerns about the environmental impacts of the new railway.
Under the proposal there would also be tracks added between East Greenwich and Warwick as well as between Pawtucket and Sharon, Massachusetts. The proposal also includes the addition of a station in Pawtucket. In July, the city received a $13.1 million federal grant to help build the station between Dexter and Conant Streets; at the time, RIDOT said it could open by 2020.
The proposal would also see T.F. Green’s station modified to support intercity and regional services; the Kingston station would also be improved.
According to the FRA, the various proposed upgrades would shave 45 minutes off the travel time between Providence and New York, and about five minutes from trips between Boston and Providence.
“When fully completed, this landmark report will be the crucial first step to improving this national asset and speeding up high-speed rail in the NEC,” Stephen Gardner, an Amtrak executive, said in a statement.
“The hard work of prioritizing, phasing and funding these improvements comes next and Amtrak will continue to seek opportunities to develop world-class high-speed service across the Corridor,” he continued. “It will take all the stakeholders – the federal government, states, cities, and the railroads – working and investing together to turn this vision of a renewed and modern Northeast Corridor into reality.”
FRA officials will now wait 30 days to receive and consider feedback before issuing their final Record of Decision, or “Selected Alternative.” After that, they’ll detail the process for implementing the proposal.
But the FRA tells Eyewitness News it’s ultimately up to the states, cities and railroads – not the federal government – whether to move forward with any specific projects.
In addition to public feedback and environmental impact studies, the future of these plans depends on funding.
“Unless there’s a huge infusion of money, I don’t think you see a complete rebuild of the Northeast Corridor in a short period of time,” Senator Reed said.
The FRA estimates the cost of its proposal at $123 billion to $128 billion, plus an additional $2 billion a year to operate.