Commuter rail advocates are optimistic about the state's plans to upgrade service on the fast-growing Waterbury branch line on Metro-North Railroad.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's 30-year, $100 billion transportation overhaul includes plans to spend $350 million to improve rail service between Bridgeport and Waterbury. Upgrades include signalization, grade crossings, sidings and station improvements.
Passing sidings are being installed to help boost train traffic along the single track rail line in each direction. When the work is completed by the end of 2018, a train can pull onto a siding to let another train pass, accommodating more rail service.
This year, an express train to Stamford was restored and weekend service was increased. And in December, $7 million in bonds were approved to begin the design of signalization on the Waterbury branch that links to the New Haven line of Metro-North Railroad between Connecticut and New York City.
Commuters are gathering Wednesday evening in Naugatuck to hear what's in store for the rail line.
With Malloy's transportation plan being promoted and publicized, the question now being posed to commuters is what Waterbury rail service improvements would be the most beneficial, said Rick Dunne, executive director of the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments.
The number of rider trips on the rail line has jumped from 178,000 in 2004 to nearly 400,000 in 2012, said Jim Gildea, vice chairman of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council.
"It's more than doubled with no increase in service," he said. "It's a single-track line without great evening commuting options."
The growth has been fueled by population growth in the Naugatuck Valley, where home prices are lower than in the Fairfield County area, Dunne said.
In addition, increased car traffic along Route 8 has become burdensome and expensive, he said.
"If we can boost trains, we can avoid the Route 8 corridor," Dunne said.
Until recently, commuters complained about service along the Waterbury line, insisting that state spending and improvements failed to keep up with the rail line's growth.
Malloy acknowledged riders' complaints last year about the frequent use of buses to replace out-of-service trains. The governor said at the time that the state of the Waterbury line was unacceptable.
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