NAUGATUCK — Local officials pressed area legislators this week to make sure the Waterbury branch of the Metro-North Railroad won’t be overlooked when the dust settles from the ongoing debate over funding transportation projects across the state.
“At the end of the day, we need you, our state representatives, to be our continuing voice at the Capitol,” said Waterbury Mayor Neil M. O’Leary, who is chairman of the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments.
NVCOG hosted a conference at the Naugatuck Event Center Monday that drew about a dozen state legislators from the Naugatuck Valley and surrounding area for a frank discussion on the status of the Waterbury branch.
The Waterbury branch runs about 27 miles from Waterbury to Bridgeport through the Naugatuck Valley with six stations along the way. For local officials, the Waterbury branch presents an opportunity for significant economic growth due to land available for development in municipalities along the rail line.
“The best bang for the buck for economic development is in the Naugatuck Valley,” said Naugatuck Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess, who chairs the NVCOG’s rail committee. “The gold is in the Valley.”
However, officials said persistent issues — limited and unreliable service, old equipment, and a lack of amenities at stations — plague the Waterbury branch, which in turn hinders economic development in the area and keeps people from riding the train.
“People do not have that confidence that if they take the train in the morning that they can come back,” said Mark Nielsen, NVCOG director of planning and assistant director.
A multi-million-dollar project to upgrade the Waterbury branch, including signalization, positive train control, and sidings that allow for two-way train service, is expected to be complete next year.
Local officials laid out a proposed plan for further improvements to keep the momentum rolling.
There are eight trains that leave from the station in Waterbury and seven that return each day. The proposal calls for immediately adding another train in the morning and evening peak hours, and adding one more train during peak times by 2024. Based on the estimated cost of operating a train, officials project adding two morning and two evening commuter trains to the branch will cost about $1.9 million a year.
The NVCOG is also looking for the state to commit to replacing four existing train sets, which include a locomotive and coaches, and buying three additional ones to expend service on the branch for an estimated $122 million.
In the long term, the proposal calls for a rail and maintenance shop and storage yard in Waterbury as well as improvements to the train stations along the line, including relocating the stations in Naugatuck and Seymour.
Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposed 10-year, $21.3 billion CT2030 transportation plan proposes to procure 132 new rail cars and 30 locomotives for the New Haven line, the Waterbury and Danbury lines, Shore Line East and the Hartford line. The estimated cost is $985 million.
Rich Andreski, chief for the state Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Public Transportation, said the state is moving forward this year with buying new rail cars. How many the state buys will come down to funding, he said.
Transportation funding has been a hot-button issue in Hartford. Lamont and Democratic majority leaders are concentrating on trying to cement support for the latest proposal for truck-only highway tolls. The Republican minority is opposed to tolls in any form.
In a subsequent interview, Lamont said he is 100% committed to improving the Waterbury branch. He said the planned improvements can be transformative for Waterbury and the Naugatuck Valley.
“Find me a way to pay for it. You know my strategy on that,” he said.
NVCOG’s proposal calls for using a low-interest loan program from the federal government to pay for the rail improvements.
Under the Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing Program, direct loans can fund up to 100% of a railroad project with repayment periods of up to 35 years and interest rates equal to the cost of borrowing to the government. Eligible borrowers include railroads, state and local governments, and government-sponsored authorities and corporations.
Local officials say the Waterbury branch has overlooked for years. They are looking for specific legislation for improvements to the Waterbury branch.
State legislators vowed to support the rail line in Hartford.
“We are dedicated to this,” said state Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck. “We will make this our issue.”
State Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury, expressed frustration over what she said was years of improvements for the rail line getting “bumped” for other projects, and called for the DOT to make the branch a priority.
“We’re going to be once again on the bottom of the line and we’re going to be standing in place,” she said.
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said despite the solid investment and immediate returns that improvements to the branch would bring, the issue is the delegation needs to get the governor and legislative leaders to agree.
“The problem is we can’t do it on our own,” she said.