Municipal leaders push for funds for Waterbury branch
NAUGATUCK — Before the General Assembly started its short session this week, members of the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments had a message for local legislators.
“The state of Connecticut is going to fall apart completely unless we can find a way to address transportation and, specifically, railroad improvements,” said Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess during a rail summit he hosted Feb. 2 at Town Hall.
The purpose of the summit, Hess said, was to provide area legislators with information to fight for funding for improvements on the Waterbury branch of the Metro-North Railroad and transportation in general. The line runs from Waterbury to Bridgeport through the Naugatuck Valley.
The state Department of Transportation is proposing to reduce weekend and weekday off-peak service and raise fares on the branch to mitigate the agency’s budget deficit.
Aside from the planned service cuts, Gov. Dannel Malloy and the DOT have postponed $4.3 billion in transportation projects indefinitely because the Special Transportation Fund is poised to become insolvent. The postponed projects include the purchase of new train locomotives and cars for the Waterbury branch.
This comes after the state has already invested $70 million for some upgrades for the Waterbury branch, including signalization, positive train control, and sidings that allow for two-way train service.
Beacon Falls First Selectman Christopher Bielik said the work being done now doesn’t mean a thing without the new and refurbished trains.
“We can all sit around and admire the shiny new siding track that’s out there,” he said.
Municipal leaders in towns along the line and nearby say improving the service on the Waterbury branch is vital to economic development in the area.
Hess pointed out of the windows of Town Hall to the empty lots downtown that are primed for development. However, a proposed transit-oriented development project on the former General DataComm property along Old Firehouse Road, locally known as Parcel B, relies on improved rail service on the Waterbury branch.
Seymour First Selectman Kurt Miller said there are similar economic development opportunities in towns along the line.
“We need to get the message to our state senators and our state representatives the importance of this Valley rail line to the continued success of the cities and towns that are along the rail line and that border the towns that touch the rail line,” said Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary, who is chairman of NVCOG executive committee.
Municipal leaders urged the legislators to find a way to support the transportation fund.
Electronic tolling and an increasing the gas tax have been proposed as ways the pay for transportation projects.
Hess said the 19 members of the NVCOG executive committee unanimously supported tolls. Members stressed, though, that any funds for transportation must be put into a lockbox, so legislators can’t use the money for other items. Over the years, legislators have raided the transportation fund to pay for other budgetary items.
Rick Dunne, executive director of the NVCOG, said federal regulations require toll revenue to be used specifically for the highway it was collected on.
State Rep. Jeffrey Berger, D-73rd District, said the legislature has to find the will to create a consistent revenue stream because money isn’t going to drop from heaven.
“The question isn’t how you’re going to find the funding,” Hess said. “The question is what’s going to happen if you don’t do it? It’s going to fall apart. You have to do it.”
State Rep. David Labriola, R-131st District, said a lockbox has to be constitutionally sound. He suggested the legislators form a rail caucus, which was formed following the summit, to lobby for the Waterbury branch and rail improvements.
“If we all go in with this as our priority, there should be no reason that we don’t come out with action,” state Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, said. “How we attain that, how we go about that may differ. But that commitment, you have it.”
State Sen. George Logan said the issue has nothing to do with tolls and lockboxes, but the leadership in the state. He said it’s a matter of prioritizing state spending.
NVCOG members argued improving the Waterbury branch line is an investment that will provide more bang for the state’s buck.
Dunne said investing in rail will help get cars off the roads and avoid costly repair to highways.
The improvements the NVCOG is looking for overall, including relocating the Naugatuck train station, six new high-level platforms, increased service, and enhancements to station amenities, would cost about $500 million, Dunne said.
In comparison, he said, replacing the bridge on Route 8 over the Housatonic River is going to cost $1 billion.
Hess added the new train cars will cost about $80 million, which is less than the recently completed $81-million renovate-to-new project at Naugatuck High School.
Bielik said commuters in Beacon Falls who use the train say it is unreliable and has limited runs, which discourages people from taking the train. He pointed out the Beacon Falls train station is located within walking distance of an apartment complex that would appeal to millennials, if the train service was reliable.
Bielik said infrastructure is an asset to help keep and attract young people out of college.
“If we don’t spend money on keeping that infrastructure in place, we’re going to end up in spiral that we’re never going to recover from,” he said.