By Paul Hughes and Andrew Larson, Republican-American
HARTFORD — The state can’t afford to buy new rail cars for the Waterbury and Danbury branches of Metro-North Railroad, according to Gov. Ned Lamont.
Instead, the Waterbury and Danbury lines are likely going to have to wait years for the needed rail cars while the state replaces the fleets for the Hartford Line and the Shoreline East Line.
Disappointment and disbelief rumbled through the Naugatuck Valley as news spread that the Lamont administration dropped its plan to purchase 12 new rail cars for the Waterbury line.
The State Bond Commission had been expected to approve $300 million for procuring 72 new rail cars for all four of the state’s commuter rail lines since the governor’s office released the commission’s latest agenda.
The explanation for the change of plans offered April 16 at the State Bond Commission meeting was the Waterbury and Danbury lines had been included in error on two different agendas, and the agendas also incorrectly stated that 72 replacement cars would be purchased.
Melissa McCaw, the state budget director, said the $300 million would only be used to purchase 60 replacement rail cars for the Hartford Line and the Shore Line East.
The Lamont administration had an opportunity to revise the agenda item after technical difficulties cut short a teleconference meeting April 8, and Lamont rescheduled the meeting for April 16. No change was made in the reported agenda.
Lamont and McCaw also tied the administration’s decision to the failure of the legislature to approve a transportation funding plan that they said would have enabled the purchase of the long-awaited replacement cars for the Waterbury and Danbury lines.
Without additional revenue, McCaw and Lamont said the state is unable to afford to borrow another $60 million now for the cars for the Waterbury and Danbury lines
Lamont and Democratic legislative leaders negotiated a 10-year, $19.4 billion funding plan that proposed 12 truck-only bridge tolls to help finance highway and bridge projects. The governor gave up in February after Democratic leaders repeatedly postponed planned votes on the CT2030 initiative.
The CT2030 plan proposed to use $3.2 billion of low-interest federal loans secured by the state’s rail lines to finance $6.2 billion in rail improvements, including $350 million for 132 new rail cars and 30 locomotives for all four commuter lines.
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, charged Lamont dropped the Waterbury line as political retaliation because she and a number of Naugatuck Valley legislators opposed highway tolls.
“I believe this is not coincidental,” she said.
The legislature’s bipartisan Waterbury Rail Caucus protested the governor’s decision, saying, “The Waterbury rail line is once again ignored and this is unacceptable.”
The replacement cars are needed on the Hartford Line because the state has to return M8 coaches leased from the state of Massachusetts, said Joseph Giulietti, the state commissioner of transportation. He said the cars on the Shore Line East are the oldest in use on the four commuter lines.
Giulietti estimated that it will take four to five years to get the 60 cars for the Hartford Line and Shore Line East from manufacturers.
He acknowledged that procuring replacements for the Waterbury and Danbury lines will take years longer now. He said the state could structure the purchasing contract for the 60 cars for the Hartford Line and Shore Line East so that additional cars for the Waterbury and Danbury lines could be added.
Giulietti also pointed to the ongoing $90 million to install signalization, positive train control and sidings on the Waterbury branch line to allow for two-way train service. The completion date is June 2021.
He said the disruption in service amid the coronavirus pandemic is providing an opportunity to advance that work.
Jim Gildea, chairman of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council, condemned the decision not to buy new rail cars for the Waterbury branch.
“This bond commission cutting out the new car purchase for the Waterbury branch is disappointing on many levels,” said Gildea, who lives in Derby and commutes to work on the Waterbury branch. “Much work and advocacy has gone into capitalizing on the Waterbury branch passing siding project and taking advantage of opportunities for expanded service.”
Gildea said the new cars are needed to realize benefits of the ongoing signalization project on the Waterbury branch. He said the decision not to purchase news cars calls into question that $90 million investment.
“It threatens the economic futures of some of the most distressed communities in the state, as the entire corridor was hoping to use expanded service as an economic springboard,” Gildea said.