8.7-Mile Ride Shows Passengers The Benefits Of Griffin Line
Aboard one of the first three passenger trains to Bloomfield in the past half-century, conversation hopped from one ambitious goal to the next: New housing and jobs in Windsor, perhaps an office park in Bloomfield, and surely an infusion of business for downtown.

Many of the politicians, business leaders and transit advocates on board ended their ride saying the Griffin Line would make perfect sense as a light rail link from downtown Hartford to Bradley International Airport.

"We can get economic development, we can get people from the airport to downtown, and we can get traffic off 91 and 75 and Day Hill Road," state Rep. David McCluskey, D- West Hartford, enthusiastically told the crowd.

Throughout the day Friday, a Central New England Railroad excursion train shuttled riders along the 8.7-mile stretch of freight tracks between Union Station and the end of the line, a tobacco field just below the intersection of routes 189 and 187 in northern Bloomfield. The first two trips were for train enthusiasts attending a national model railroad show in Hartford; the third was reserved for Chamber of Commerce officials, politicians and others. It was an opportunity for railroad President A.J. Belliveau to make his case for extending the tracks to Bradley and using them for passenger service.

But the arguments today for making the Griffin Line project are virtually identical to the ones that dominated political debate at the Capitol in the '90s. And the proposal back then got crushed: After years of work and millions of dollars in studies, Windsor residents voted against it, a contingent of East Granby homeowners complained it would ruin their town's rural character, and the state transportation department ultimately scuttled the whole idea.

So why did Belliveau's tour attract regional planners; state Rep. Peggy Sayers, D- Windsor Locks; Rep. Kenneth Green, D-Hartford; Windsor Town Manager Peter Souza; Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez; Sierra Club leaders; and owners of a half-dozen major properties along the line?

McCluskey said the answer is simple: "What happened then was 10 years ago. Today is a different time. Look at all the new development in the Day Hill Road section since back then. Look at gas prices, carbon emissions. A lot of things have changed."

After the trip, Perez said he's more convinced than ever that a rail link to the airport would help the city as well as the whole central Connecticut region. Souza said he thinks a busway would allow more flexible service, but that either way he's excited about the potential for commuter transit serving corporate offices that have opened along Day Hill Road.

"Passenger rail here makes sense," said James RePass, president of the National Corridors Initiative, a prominent rail advocacy group. "And we're not rail fans, we're businessmen. Today rail brings businessmen and environmentalists together."

None of the advocates was prepared to recommend a specific route for extending the tracks from Bloomfield to Bradley's terminal, which is at least 5 miles away. But they agreed there are several possible routes, and no insurmountable barriers. Ronald Eddy, vice president of Bloomfield-based Griffin Land, said the costliest obstacle would probably be building a bridge across the Farmington River.

Central New England Railroad says that if Connecticut could acquire the property, the company could build the extension, even including a bridge, for $50 million. Upgrading the tracks to passenger-service quality, installing a signal system and passing sidings, building stations and similar expenses aren't part of that estimate.

McCluskey wants the DOT to seek stimulus funding to upgrade the tracks, which Central New England uses to serve about a half-dozen freight customers. The company has put more than $7 million into track upgrades, new locomotives, replacement of 25,000 railroad ties and new grade crossings. Even supporters of the light-rail idea acknowledge that maintaining freight service while adding light rail wouldn't pass current Federal Rail Administration regulations, although RePass said it's possible to seek a waiver by restricting freight service to late night hours.

And so far, the idea isn't being welcomed at DOT headquarters. Commissioner Joseph Marie neither attended nor sent a senior staff member in his place, and his office — in the midst of a series of other mass transit initiatives — made clear that he's fully focused on advancing the New Haven-Springfield rail project.

"At this time, the Griffin Line is not a priority for investing in rail service," DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said. "With regard to service to Bradley, the provision of high-quality bus service from Windsor Locks is the best option for connections to the New Haven-Springfield rail corridor."

"Today is a different time. ... Look at gas prices, carbon emissions. A lot of things have changed."