The Danbury Branch line: ‘If you build it, they will come’

Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty (D-5) rode the Danbury Branch Rail Line from Danbury to South Norwalk April 1, and there held a press conference on their efforts to secure more federal funding for Metro-North, for safety upgrades and service improvements.

Along the way, they talked with commuters, collecting feedback as fuel for their fire.

Joining Murphy and Esty — and State Department of Transportation Commissioner Jim Redeker — was a band of state and local politicians, which Murphy called “the bipartisan delegation representing the Danbury rail line.”

Among them from Wilton were First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice, state Sen. Toni Boucher (R-26) and Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143).

Also there were state politicians Sen. Bob Duff (Norwalk), and Reps. David Arconti (Danbury), Bob Godfrey (Danbury), Stephen Harding (Brookfield), and Fred Wilms (Norwalk). Bethel First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker and Redding First Selectman Julia Pemberton also came along.

After arriving at the South Norwalk station, Murphy began.

“The story of this line is increased ridership,” he said.

“You have seen, over a one-year period of time, near double-digit increases in the number of people who are utilizing this line, and the good news is that the state is finally starting to make some investments in this line.”

The bad news? According to Murphy, these investments aren’t large enough to electrify or extend the Danbury Branch Rail Line.

“The bottom line is that for the riders that we talked to today, it’s not enough,” Murphy said. “And for the riders we talked to today, they’ve been listening to promises about increased service on this line for as long as they have been taking it. And though they’re starting to see the grass roots of some progress, they’re still not convinced.”

Money’s on its way, but Murphy takes little comfort in the amount.

“The federal transportation bill that Elizabeth and I supported at the end of 2015 will mean more money for transit here in Connecticut.

“Over the course of the next several years, Connecticut will be getting an increase of about 7 or 8% in transit dollars, because of this new transportation law.

“Now, 7 to 8% increases in transportation funding are better than 7 to 8% reductions in funding, but 7 to 8% increases aren’t going to electrify the Danbury line. They’re not going to pay for new cars to replace the aging infrastructure that we’re dealing with today.”

The solution, by Murphy’s logic, is a firm push in Washington for more aggressive programs to underscore state measures.

“Ultimately, in Washington, we’ve got to have the courage to come up with real new money for rail infrastructure in this country.

“Both Elizabeth and I are going to be pushing hard for new federal investments in transit that, partnered together with the plan that the governor and commissioners are backing, can mean, finally, some real improvements for this line.”

Murphy concluded with the “if you build it, they will come” argument.

“The saying, ‘If you build it, they will come,’ is true about rail. If you build capacity, you will grow commuters. If you grow commuters, you will allow yourself to build economic development capacity around these train stations,” he said.

“It’s a win-win, for communities, if we are able to win both federal and state investments in this rail line,” Murphy said lastly.

Esty spoke to the political courage Murphy cited as necessary at the federal level if Connecticut is ever going to improve statewide transit.

“It’s imperative for the state to move forward boldly into the future, and we don’t do that with small increases,” she said. “We do that with big, bold plans, and that’s what we’re here supporting, is major, major replacement of these lines, and electrification.”

She said she “spoke with a young man [on the train] who was going to visit his mother, and was going to help her move her boxes.

“He said he’s got the time today, but most days, our commuters don’t have the time. They want to get there on time; they want to get home and see their kids’ baseball game, and so the opportunity for us, working at the federal level, and with our state and local partners, is to really build out the kind of fast, modern train system that our young people want and expect, if we’re going to keep them in the state, and that our businesses talk to me about every single day.”

“It can be a real win for our state,” Esty said, “but that’s not going to happen unless we work together. We were able to work together in Congress to pass a major, five-year transportation bill — $70 million more for transit in this state, which is making a real difference — but it is only a down payment on the real major investment that we need to make, and that’s what we saw today.”

When it was Vandesrlice’s turn to speak, she said upgrades to the Danbury Branch Rail Line are exactly what Wilton needs as a high-tax town.

“It’s critical for Wilton and for our future, not only to attract new residents, but also new businesses. We’re pushing an effort right now. Wilton is open for business. We’re looking for more expansion of business in our community,” she said.

Boucher said, ““[The Danbury Branch line] is an economic imperative. It is a gem, and it could be doing so much better, given the ridership that we have.”

Lavielle said, “It is extremely important for everyone who lives in this corridor, from the point of view of easy commuting, safe, reliable commuting, transportation in general, and for economic development, as well as property values — the developments that everyone expects … electrification and eventually extension, are considered and hopefully implemented.”

The Bulletin asked Murphy why the “bipartisan delegation” didn’t take an earlier train, with more daily commuters, rather than the 9:05 out of Danbury.

He answered, “I’d be happy to do it another time; there’s no reason why we couldn’t.”

Lavielle, asked why this push was being taken now, said, “Senator Murphy is going around the state listening to people, what they have to say about transportation.

“In Connecticut, funds are so scarce right now, the budget situation is so desperate, and the governor, to be fair, has made transportation a priority, but he’s outlined a 30-year plan — you can’t authorize 30 years of bonding all at once — so we authorized five last year, but in those five years, there is absolutely nothing for this line.

“Then, in the next 25 years, it’s one of the items on a very, very long list.

“The state has not designated this as a priority. Connecticut owns the tracks. I think it should have been [a priority] a long time ago. This is a very important economic area of the state. Fairfield County pays 45% of the state’s taxes. This area attracts people who have money to pay more taxes, and businesses that can also pay taxes, and that is good for the entire state’s economy, so when you deprive Western Connecticut of investment, you’re depriving the entire state.

Vanderslice told The Bulletin, “If you just look at the area around the Wilton Center train station, where we have both business and, now, new residences — the better the train quality, the more you’re able to attract the businesses into that building, and the individuals to live in those residences.”

“If you’re looking to come here, that is one of the critical things,” she said.