Video and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — The Drop-the-Bypass movement received an unexpected boost Jan. 25 when Gov. Gina Raimondo came out against a portion of the federal rail project that threatened open space and tribal land in Washington County.
The governor’s decision was announced during a 200-person opposition rally at the Statehouse rotunda. Speakers from town councils in Westerly, Charlestown and Hopkinton spoke against the project, as did the Charlestown and Westerly land trusts and members of the Narragansett Indian tribe. All were brought together by the advocacy group Charlestown Citizens Alliance.
“This is a good day,” said Sen. Dennis Algiere, D-Charlestown, standing before the cheering crowd. “We stand together and we are going to be successful in our fight. We are going to continue in our efforts and we are going to stick together.”
The proposed regional NEC Future rail project is intended to shorten travel time by 45 minutes along the Northeast Corridor rail line that runs between New York City and Boston. To allow the train to maintain higher speeds, the $130 billion project wants to straighten out curves by building new rail beds along the route, including a portion called the Old Saybrook to Kenyon Bypass.
Critics of the project say construction and rail travel will harm environmentally sensitive areas such as Grills Preserve in Westerly and the Francis C. Carter Memorial Preserve and Amos Green Farm in Charlestown. An old portion of track would also be reactivated in the Great Swamp Management Area in South Kingstown.
Narragansett Indian tribal lands and residential neighborhoods also would be disturbed by the rerouted rail line. Portions of wetlands would be filled in, and blasting and trench digging may occur.
Members of Charlestown Citizens Alliance met with Raimondo prior to the 4 p.m. rally and were told of her support to halt the Old Saybrook-Kenyon Bypass. To be clear, Raimondo continues to support the overall rail improvement project, but opposes the changes in Washington County. Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse share the same stance.
“That’s why I’m asking the (Federal Railroad Administration) to address those concerns and explain its rationale for building the proposed bypass, as opposed to enhancing the existing route,” Whitehouse wrote in an e-mail to ecoRI News. “It will be important to have Rhode Island served by any high-speed rail service between Boston and New York, but this particular route hasn't been justified.”
Due to the pushback, Reed was able to extend the public comment period several weeks beyond the Jan. 31 deadline.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is managing the rail project, which classifies the bypass project as in a waiting period. FRA will publish a record of decision after the close of the waiting period. FRA will accept and review feedback on the project until the publication of the record of decision, which isn't anticipated prior to March 1.
Virginia Lee, president of the Charlestown Town Council, said the project may be years from being decided, but she wants the opposition to stay ahead of the curve, so to speak, until the FRA drops the bypass plan.
“We just thank the governor for taking a stance,” Lee said.