Construction to upgrade one of Connecticut’s most important freight rail lines can begin, after the state received an $8 million federal grant. The funding arrives as the issue of how we move goods around the state is coming front and center.
Connecticut’s quiet corner has an economic development ace up its sleeve, according to John Filchak, executive director of the Northeastern Council of Governments. “We’re one of the last areas of Connecticut where you can acquire a larger parcel of land for a warehouse distribution or a manufacturing facility,” he said.
But while the associated jobs are welcome, moving goods into and out of those facilities can lead to congestion and traffic problems, something Filchak said economic development officials don’t always plan for. He pointed to the example of a Lowe's distribution center in Plainfield where a rail line runs the length of the building.
"You could throw a stone and hit it," Filchak said, yet every dispatch from the center goes out by truck. "I think what we need to do on the front end if we’re going to provide the incentives is look at whether it’s by truck or by rail, and look at the different options to make sure we get the best match."
While more than 70 percent of the nation’s freight still travels by truck, Connecticut is working to revive its freight rail network — a $10 million upgrade of the New England Central Railroad, which runs from New London to the state’s northern border and on to Canada, might be completed by the end of this year. It will allow it to carry heavier loads, better serving modern rail freight needs and potentially attracting more businesses to consider sending goods by train.
“I look at rail, I see opportunity there,” said Scott Greene. He heads up freight rail policy for the federal Department of Transportation. “We’ve invested a lot in our highway system and now I think that everybody’s looking at maybe rebalancing our transportation system, coming back to rail and looking at that as being a good potential for the future.”
Greene was in Connecticut this week to take part in a forum on freight rail.
State Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker told the gathering he wants Connecticut to be the first state to have a multi-modal focus on freight, linking its deep water ports with rail, road and air options, and looking at freight as a driver of economic development.
But, he said, there's an awareness problem to overcome. "We have a history of not talking about freight," said Redeker.
The forum was convened by U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal. He's backing a bill in Congress that would give the nation a comprehensive freight policy for the first time. "Moving more freight by rail means less congestion, environmental contamination, traffic on our roads, as a convenience as well as a cost saver," he said. "Moving freight by rail makes a ton of sense, so I think that’s our future."
The amount of freight moving around the U.S. is projected to increase by almost 90 percent in the next 20 years, making the debate even more urgent.