Development, improved train service go hand in hand

Naugatuck Mayor N. Warren ‘Pete’ Hess, second from left, testified in favor of two bills to improve the Waterbury branch line of the Metro-North Railroad Feb. 15 in Hartford. He is pictured with, from left, state Rep. David Labriola, R-Oxford, state Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury, Naugatuck Economic Development Corporation President and CEO Ron Pugliese, state Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, and state Sen. George Logan, R-Ansonia. –CONTRIBUTED

NAUGATUCK — Reliable and frequent train service would lead to an economic boon for the borough and other Valley towns.

That was Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess’ message to the state Transportation Committee on Feb. 15 when he spoke at the Capital in support of Senate bills 301 and 384.

The two bills from Sen. Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, propose to expand commuter service on the Waterbury branch line of the Metro-North Railroad and add stops in Seymour, Shelton and Derby.

“It is clear to me that the best bang for the buck the state can get is to invest in the Waterbury branch line because we will have, just in Naugatuck with parcels B and A, 600 residential units and commercial units under the residential units,” said Hess in an interview the day after testifying. “This will provide an impetus for people in Fairfield County, especially millennials who can’t afford to live there, to come to Naugatuck and live here and avoid having a car and getting their cars off the highways.”

Parcels A and B are the former General DataComm building and adjacent parking lot at 6 Rubber Ave. The borough owns the land and has an agreement in place with Benjamin Zitron to develop the land. The plan calls for Zitron’s New Haven-based Sustainable Development Corp. to build a mixed-use development on the property.

The plan relies heavily on being transit-oriented and calls for moving the Naugatuck train station from Water Street to the site.

“I made it clear to [the Transportation Committee] that frequent train service is the key to success to those projects and also to the future of the Naugatuck Valley,” Hess said.

Hess said national studies have shown an easily accessible train station, along with the creation of transit-oriented development, increases property values in the nearby area.

However, in order to have transit-oriented development, there first needs to be reliable and frequent train service, Hess said.

“When I say frequent train service I mean service equivalent to what we have on the Danbury line. So if we have reliable service that is frequent, it will support large-scale commercial, residential, and economic development,” Hess said.

The Waterbury line tallied 342,908 passenger trips in 2016, compared to 782,796 passenger rides for the Danbury line.

The Waterbury line’s ridership has been trending downward since 2011. It dropped 2.9 percent last year. Ridership increased during the first three months of 2016, but began falling due to mechanical problems that caused long delays.

“It is also clear to me that the only reason ridership is low now is because you can go somewhere but you can’t get back. If you can’t get back, no one is going to rely on it for work. So a two-and-a-half or three-hour wait for the next train. It just doesn’t work,” Hess said.

Naugatuck Economic Development Corporation President and CEO Ron Pugliese echoed Hess’ comments.

“Right now [trains] run on somewhat of an irregular basis. You can get from Naugatuck to Bridgeport fairly regularly. But to get back is somewhat questionable at times,” Pugliese said.

Signal and siding improvements are planned for the Waterbury line to allow more frequent trains in both directions on the single-track line.

“Everything is continuing to move forward. The exact timing of it is a little uncertain,” Hess said “We do know that by 2020 the positive train controls, the sidings for two-way train traffic, and signalization will be complete. So it is not going to take much more than that to get frequent train service.”

If the plan to upgrade the line and add more frequent train service falls through it would not only hurt Metro-North’s ridership, it would also impact the future plans for the borough.

While the proposed project for parcels A and B would move forward, it would be in very different from what the borough envisions now, Hess said.

“I would say the size of the project hinges on frequent train service. It would be very difficult to financially support a large-scale massive project without frequent train service. We can have a project on parcels A and B of a smaller scale, but we are hopeful to have a large scale project,” Hess said.

Transportation Committee leaders expressed general support last week, the Republican-American reported, but cautioned Hess all parts of the state are seeking expansions of rail service and competing for available funding.

“It is a long haul. You have to keep at it,” said Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, the committee’s Senate co-chairman.

Hess said improved train service will benefit more towns than just Naugatuck.

“It will benefit Naugatuck greatly, but it will also benefit Waterbury, Beacon Falls, Seymour, Ansonia, Shelton, Derby, all the way down the line. Everyone will benefit. So it is a great thing for the Valley,” Hess said.

The Republican-American contributed to this article.