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Monday, September 28, 2009

Connecticut seeks grants to renovate freight rail

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In the biggest move in decades to renovate Connecticut's freight rail system, the state is seeking more than $109 million in grants to refurbish or rebuild deteriorated tracks in Middletown, Hartford, East Windsor, Danbury and elsewhere, according to The Hartford Courant.

In their bid for a share of $1.5 billion in federal stimulus dollars, Connecticut transportation officials said that upgrading hundreds of miles of rail line will create 2,200 jobs and foster business development along the routes. The work will prepare the state's patchwork of freight lines to handle new demand that planners anticipate because of the global drive to cut greenhouse gases and improve fuel efficiency.

Connecticut is proposing work on 10 lines run by seven different railroads. The two core projects would rebuild part of the neglected Maybrook Line -- a key east-west route that links to New York -- and restore the Hartford-to-Middletown line that's been out of service for years.

The work is "critical to the continued economic growth and success of the Northeast region," according to the application submitted by James Redeker, bureau chief of public transportation for the state transportation department.

"This can get trucks off the road, it can reduce air pollution, it can achieve a lot of goals," said state Rep. David McCluskey, D-West Hartford, one of the chief advocates for revitalizing Connecticut's freight rail system.

Freight train service began fading in Connecticut and other industrialized states as mills and factories shut down in the middle of the past century, and the decline accelerated after the interstate highway system made trucking a faster, cheaper way to ship cargo. But unstable fuel prices, crushing traffic congestion and worsening pollution have led some planners to project a resurgence in freight traffic. In their TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) application to the federal DOT, Connecticut officials estimate that the 3.6 million tons of materials and products shipped over freight lines in the state will rise to 4.5 million tons within 20 years.

The freight initiative is just part of Connecticut's total request for $329 million in federal TIGER grants for transportation-related projects. Federal transportation officials have been flooded with applications totaling more than $57 billion - or about 38 times more money than they have to divvy up. Because the one-time grants are part of the stimulus package, the federal government is requiring that projects be ready to go without time-consuming environmental studies, land acquisition or other delays. Winners are to be selected by early winter.

The work would range from modernizing grade crossings and repairing overpasses to replacing rotted ties and worn-out tracks. Some of it would reopen lines that are largely unused, such as the Waterbury-Torrington route, and some would upgrade in-service tracks to allow freight trains to run faster. Some tracks are privately owned and others are leased by ConnDOT to freight operators.