The Hummel Report

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A Troubled Path

It is likely decades away - and may not happen at all - but a proposal by the Federal Rail Administration to run train tracks through the northern part of Charlestown has united a town upset by what some residents believe is a lack of transparency, and the possibility of losing private and preserved land. This week Jim Hummel sits down with a lifelong resident who talks about the effect the news has had on her family - and her community.

SCRIPT:

Coulter: ``This is my whole….grew up here, got married, still live right here.‘’

It is the only place Kim Coulter has ever lived - on hundreds of acres that her grandparents bought in 1955. The farm itself dates back centuries.

Coulter: ``We’re kind of like the little secret in Charlestown. Everybody knows the beaches. Everybody wants to go to the beaches, but this part of Charlestown, if you want to go for hikes, and you want to get back into nature, this is the place you want to be.

Coulter and her husband Bill have made improvements over the years and their son eventually plans to take over the Stoney Hill Cattle Farm.

But the Coulters got unsettling news a week before Christmas when they found out the Federal Rail Administration, as part of what it calls a `next generation comprehensive planning initiative,’ has one scenario of where a high-speed rail line would pass right through their farm - as well as adjacent Narragansett Indian tribal land and nearby property owned by the Nature Conservancy.

Coulter: ``At first it was a little bit difficult to comprehend.’’

Hummel: ``Did you think it was a joke?’’

Coulter: ``I did, you know, I just figured somebody was goofing, because we never got a letter. If they’re doing all of this research and this has been in the works for seven years and looking at our property and neighboring properties, don’t you think somebody should have sent you a letter directly from the FRA? Someone along the line? Not to the town, not to the state, I should have gotten a letter. We should have gotten a letter.”

It turns out the FRA has been working on the issue for the past five years, looking for a way to shorten travel times on the Northeast Corridor by straightening out the tracks in sections of Rhode Island and Connecticut, where there has already been organized opposition.

The plan calls for a rail bypass from Old Saybrook,Connecticut inland from the current coastal route - moving through the northern section of Charlestown - including the Coulters’ farm, before merging with existing track in Kenyon, just south of Kingston. In some areas, like the Coulters’ land,  the rail would be laid underground in a tunnel.

Some residents who have done a detailed analysis of the bypass estimate it would only save a minute or two from the current route, and the trains would have to slow down to pass through any tunnels; unlike the Acela, which already can reach speeds of 150 mile per hour.

Lee: ``We’re in favor of fast, modern transportation to Rhode Island and to Providence, rail transportation; but we can have that and stay on the current tracks. We don’t need this bypass to achieve that.

Virginia Lee became president of the town council just as the rail plan became public late last year. She presided over a meeting of hundreds at the local elementary school last month. And the issue has consumed most of her time the past two months.

Lee: ``And I think they probably thought because they didn’t go down enough to know, that this is just somebody’s rural land and we can pay that person enough to compensate for the value of their land. Well that’s not true here.”

The town organized a protest two weeks ago at the Rhode Island State House, where opponents of the proposed track filled the Rotunda for a late-afternoon rally. Before that rally, Gov. Raimondo assured residents and elected officials she would oppose the bypass - which drew this response from state Senator Dennis Algiere from Westerly.

Algiere: ``We have to thank the Governor one last time: So thank you, Governor!”

The opponents’ greatest potential ally, though, may be Rhode Island’s senior Senator Jack Reed, who was able to get the FRA to extend the deadline for comment to at least March 1st. Reed wrote Council President Lee last month saying, in part:

``The State of Rhode Island must be on board for any project in the state to move forward…and any project would be subject to moredetailed environmental review and public comment. Moreover, as the Ranking Member of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Transportation, I will not support funding for any project that the State of Rhode island does not back.”

Alviti: ``Where we build highways within a year, changes in railroad alignment and or efficiency upgrades or operation maintenance take place over decades.’’

Rhode Island D.O.T. Director Peter Alviti has also been in contact with federal officials. He told The Hummel Report this plan will be years, if not decades, away from actual implementation - but he says the FRA has caused what he believes is unneeded angst for the residents in Charlestown.

Alviti: ``By the way, that alignment that you see that people were in such a state of frenzy about could get changed 10 times between now and three decades from now when they get it funded. It certainly has created quite a furor and I’m not sure it was entirely necessary at this point.’’

We rode the train from Providence to Old Saybrook and back last week. And while the Northeast Corridor train did achieve speeds of 80 to 90 miles an hour in some sections, in others it had to slow down because of the terrain and curves in the track throughout southern Rhode Island and nearby Connecticut. And to make stops along the way.

The Amtrak ride carries with it one of the prettiest coastline views in New England; and we made stops in Westerly, Mystic and New London, before eventually getting off in Old Saybrook an hour and 15 minutes from Providence. The stops between Kingston and Saybrook would be bypassed under the new proposal.

Coulter says while this may be theoretical to some, it’s very real to her family. They built this house a decade ago with a sweeping view out the front door. Under one of the current proposals the train path would go directly through the house.

Coulter: ``The information that we’ve gotten back from the FRA and from the state is nothing’s written in stone. It could move a little bit this way or a little bit that way. That’s not good enough. Even if it moves 50 feet this way, 100 feet this way, you’re still taking out a whole community. You’re still taking out a large chunk of change of conserved land. I don’t want that axe hanging over my head for the next 30 or 40 years. I don’t want it hanging over my son’s head for the next 30 or 40 years.

Lee says there has already been a chilling effect for the local land trusts.

Lee: ``To me it’s just stunning…the whole idea of conservation easements, the whole idea of open space protection. The biggest legacy I can have is to donate my land for future generations to use and to enjoy, is not any longer guaranteed in perpetuity, even though that’s what the deeds say, even though we’ve agreed to do. Already the land trust is having people say `I just gave you multiple acres of land and I was going to give you the rest and I don’t trust it now.’”

Hummel: ``Already?”

Lee: ``Already, to our land trust.”

Hummel: `` That’s the collateral damage…”

Lee: ``And not just our land trust but the South Kingstown Land Trust, the Westerly Land Trust, the Land Trust Alliance, any conservation efforts that have gone on for decades, really generations now.”

Coulter: ``Right now we’ve lost 80 percent of our farmland in the state of Rhode Island. If you take away another couple of farms, that 80 percent is now 90 percent of the farmland you’ve lost. You cannot successfully do farm-to-table by destroying all of your farmland and working on 10 percent.”

For now opponents of the bypass have won an early battle, but it’s a long and drawn out war that they don’t want to have to fight - although they will if necessary.

Lee: ``It’s not conceptual here, it’s real here. This imaginary line that people are flippantly saying, well we’ll work the details out later, has real impact on people now.”

Coulter: ``I don’t want to be in my 80s and then this raises its ugly head again and now I have to fight all over again. That’s not fair, what you’re doing is holding us hostage.”

Lee: ``It’s not that I’m against trains. I appreciate, I love trains, and I appreciate the important of having this train in the state, but you can have that and not have this bypass.”

In Charlestown, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.