Communities push for faster rail link to NYC
DANBURY — The high-profile meeting of Metro-North’s top executive and Connecticut’s transportation czar in a train car Thursday was more than a symbolic gesture about the need to improve local rail service.
Although the meeting with Metro-North President Cathy Rinaldi and state DOT Commissioner Joe Giulietti was indeed arranged with Hearst Connecticut Media for the two to show solidarity about upgrading service on the outdated Danbury branch, there were behind-the-scenes talks with Mayor Mark Boughton and the VIPs about opening a fast track to Grand Central Station.
The idea of reopening the old Maybrook rail line that runs parallel to Interstate 84 for commuters between Danbury and Southeast, NY., apparently gained traction Thursday, after Boughton told Giulietti that Danbury would pay for a study of the fast-track concept.
The idea promises to cut an hour off the commute from Danbury to midtown Manhattan.
“The first thing you have to see is that the political will is there, and the mayor has definitely expressed that political will,” Giulietti said. You have to make sure, because if you go down a path where there is no political will, you are going to waste an awful lot of effort and be accused of wasting money on a study nobody wants.”
Boughton said plenty of desire exists for the fast track.
The idea to open the 14 miles of the Maybrook line between Danbury and Southeast, where Manhattan-bound commuters would connect with Metro-North’s Harlem Line.
“I have proposed a lot of things for this city, but by far, I have heard from more people about how transformative this would be for commuters,” Boughton said.
Giulietti, who rose from working in Danbury’s railyard to being president of Metro-North for three years until 2017, said the Maybrook fast track already had support from the top elected official in Putnam County, N.Y.
“I know Mary Ellen Odell and I know how passionate she is about wanting to see these services improved,” Giulietti said of the Putnam County Executive. “And the argument they are using for this — which has validity — is they know how many people are leaving the western part of Connecticut to head over to the Harlem line for direct service to New York.”
The N.Y. connection
Odell on Friday said she would be willing to chip in to pay for a study of the Maybrook fast-track idea if it would convince lawmakers and the parent company of Metro-North that it has political support and economic development potential.
“We have a parking congestion problem at both our rail stations in Southeast,” Odell said. “And a Housatonic Area Regional Transit bus is parked outside my stations all day.”
Traction on the Maybrook line initiative comes at a time of heightened activity in Danbury and surrounding towns about encouraging economic development with improvements to transit systems.
In Danbury, for example, the city has completed a $250,000 study that recommends ways to attract investment and stimulate residential development, in part by building a $27 million transit center at the Danbury train station.
Metro-North’s Rinaldi said while it is not new for Connecticut cars to cross the border to Southeast to take rush-hour trains to work, the railroad is seeing steady increases in the trend.
“There are a lot more Connecticut plates in those parking lots,” Rinaldi said.
Connecticut residents account for 780 parking permits at Southeast train stations, with another 95 Connecticut residents on the waiting list, Odell said. In addition, buses bring 195 commuters daily from Danbury-area parking lots to Southeast train stations.
Odell said a single permit is not an accurate measure of how many commuters are crossing the border, since commuters often carpool.
In contrast, the Danbury branch has 1,100 daily riders to South Norwalk. A typical ride from Danbury to Grand Central Station takes two hours.
It would take a matter of minutes to catch a Danbury train to Southeast, where the ride to Grand Central Station takes an hour.
Giulietti said he understands that.
“What would change if you could actually provide that service and that service could go right out of Danbury and shoot across to New York?” Asked Giulietti. “Would that change the demographics and the patterns? This is why we need the feasibility study.”
Boughton on Friday said he is investigating grants and other sources to help Danbury pay for a feasibility study.
He said Danbury is committed to rebuilding the train station into a transit center.
“They want the city to have some money in the can, so our part is if we get this connected, we will build a new facility that would be really representative of what our commuters need,” Boughton said.