$400K grant to examine ways to fund Metro-North rail line upgrades

A federal grant will allow the Western Connecticut Council of Governments to spearhead a study on how to fund improvements along Metro-North's Danbury and New Canaan branch lines.

A federal grant will allow the Western Connecticut Council of Governments to spearhead a study on how to fund improvements along Metro-North’s Danbury and New Canaan branch lines.

Jeannette Ross / Hearst Connecticut Media

WILTON — It is no secret that many say the Danbury and New Canaan branch lines are in serious need of improvements. It is also no secret there is no money to pay for them.

That may change.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has awarded a $400,000 grant to the Western Connecticut Council of Governments, which includes Wilton, Ridgefield, New Canaan, Danbury and Norwalk along the branch lines, to study potential revenue sources to make improvements.

The grant was part of $1 billion given through the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) Transportation Discretionary Grants program. The WestCOG award is for a regional value capture mechanism study along the two Metro-North branch lines.

Essentially, the grant will be used to study how money, other than from state and federal sources, can be raised to make improvements to the branch lines that will generate the greatest return on investment.

One of the mechanisms that will be looked at is a tax increment financing district. The state legislature approved the formation of such districts in 2015 under PA-1577. State Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-143, who co-sponsored the legislation, said to her knowledge no one in Connecticut has made use of such a district although they are popular elsewhere in the country.

In Connecticut, a municipality could create a tax increment financing district by designating a specific area that would benefit from the development of a transportation improvement. For example, if businesses around a train station would benefit directly from a new or improved station, a tax levy on those businesses could be imposed that would be used to pay for the project.

Lavielle acknowledged there have been many studies on how to improve the branch lines over the years. “They went on the shelf because there was no money to pay for the improvements,” she said. “This is a study on how you get the money to pay for these things.

“It’s a step we’ve never taken and I’m really happy to see it because there was really no [funding] mechanism before,” she said. “The fact that we got federal money is tremendous.”

Although the state statute does not provide for a regional TIF, which would be needed to accomplish improvements along the branch lines, Lavielle said, “you certainly could have one.”

“I think this is one other way to make sure we have some leverage and decision-making power here at home. State control has gotten us nothing,” she said.

Recognizing that the state is financially challenged and individual towns have limited revenue sources, WestCOG Executive Director Francis Pickering said the agency will be looking at models used successfully in other places to generate revenue to improve transit.

“We haven’t pre-determined what that will be,” he said. “TIF has a long history of success in other places, but it is not the only option. We are open to any economically viable proposal.”

To help with the study, the council is looking for a consultant “with really good economic expertise to determine what is viable,” he said.

The study, which is expected to take one to two years, will include input from the federal and state departments of transportation, Metro-North, and the branch line municipalities. “We would like to build a consensus in the region,” Pickering said. “This will not work without local participation.”

“One advantage of a TIF is you don’t increase current taxes,” Pickering said. “When we invest in transportation, that’s a public investment, but the benefits go down to private entities. With a TIF, we want to recapture some of the private benefit.”

While the study will take current changes to ridership into consideration, it will also take a long-term view at both travel to and from Manhattan as well as intra-regional use among Fairfield County stations.

Improvements to local rail service could also help diversify the housing base through transit-oriented development. If riding the rails is not attractive to people because the trains are not frequent or fast enough, there’s no reason to build around them, Pickering said.

Some of the improvements that have been raised in the past have been more passing sidings, electrification, more trains, faster diesels, quicker positive train control, additional stations, and extending the Danbury branch to New Milford and Brookfield.

The goal, Pickering said, is to keep costs as low as possible while maximizing the benefits.

“We do not need to build a 300-mph train here, but if we don’t make some substantial improvements we won’t see substantial benefits. We are trying to get costs and benefits in alignment,” he said.

This was the council’s third time applying for the federal grant, Pickering said. Applications were made in 2018, 2019 and this past summer. This was the first year the federal DOT made awards for planning projects, Pickering said.

“We are delighted to receive this award,” he said. “We are very excited to look at what the project brings. We don’t have any preconceived notion about what the outcome will be except for exploring alternate funding models for critical infrastructure and getting it built faster.”