Tracks, Not Trucks: New Haven Harbor Primed for Railroad Revival

Tracks, Not Trucks: New Haven Harbor Primed for Railroad Revival

After stalling two years ago, Connecticut is ready to move forward with a plan that would extend rail lines to the New Haven Harbor. The move would allow shipping companies at the major port to cut back on use of fuel-inefficient trucks.

Rail tracks crossing the Tomlinson Bridge in New Haven, Conn. New Haven Independent

This piece originally appeared on the New Haven Independent.

Companies like Gulf Oil may be able to trade some of their gas-guzzling trucks for train cars by the end of 2013, as Connecticut moves forward with a plan to curb highway traffic by extending rail lines to New Haven Harbor’s shipping docks.

Judith Sheiffele, executive director of the New Haven Port Authority, said the city has long sought to connect rail lines to the harborside shipping terminals as part of a larger plan to revitalize the port. A first phase of the project was completed in 2006, bringing train tracks across Forbes Avenue and alongside Waterfront Street, through the heart of the city’s port district, and to the doorstep of Logistec, a shipping company, which welcomed the chance to send heavy steel coils by rail. In 2009, a southern spur was installed.

The tracks aim to create new opportunities for companies to haul in heavy products more efficiently and wean off their reliance on trucks.

However, the new rail lines have been used only twice since their installation, according to Sheiffele.

Four companies in the port still can’t easily access the new tracks—they’re waiting for the final phase of the project, which would run rail spurs directly across Waterfront Street into their terminals. The work should cost about $2 million, paid for by a federal grant that aims to improve air quality and alleviate traffic congestion, Sheiffele said.

The spurs have been on hold until the state moves forward with a plan to redo Waterfront Street. The state has to repave the road before the company that owns the railroad tracks, Providence & Worcester, can install the spurs across the road.

“They couldn’t put the tracks in without the roadway being reconstructed,” Sheiffele explained.

The city found out about six months ago that the state had come up with the money to carry out the Waterfront Street project, signaling hope for the port. In a campaign appearance in September 2010, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy pledged to help New Haven with the effort.

The state plans to issue a call for bids in April for the Waterfront Street redo. Construction should start mid-summer, according to Kevin Nursick, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation (DOT). The work, paid for by the state, should cost about $3 million, he said. All the work—the repaving, followed by the new rail spurs—should be finished by “the end of 2013,” he said.

The project comes years in the making. The city cried foul in 2009 that the state had “shelved” the project under former Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

In an interview this week, Nursick explained that the state at the time was slimming down to a “fiscally constrained” capital budget. It determined there was not enough money for Waterfront Street and the Downtown Crossing project, he said. The city opted to take the money for the Downtown Crossing project instead, leaving the Waterfront Street plans unfunded.

Nursick said the DOT recently found money to fund the project because bids have come in lower than expected due to a down economy.

“Contractors are hungry for work,” he said.

Credit: Melissa Bailey

The port had functioning train tracks until the 1990s, Sheiffele said. They ran right down the middle of Waterfront Street, in the lane of traffic. Two factors contributed to their demise: The state redid the Tomlinson Bridge, shifting the tracks to the northern side of the bridge. And federal regulations prohibited trains from sharing a travel lane with motor vehicles.

The current tracks cross the Tomlinson Bridge (pictured at top) then curve onto Waterfront.

The new rail spurs would extend the train tracks to the entrances to the Magellan, Gateway, Gulf and New Haven terminals, Sheiffele said. The New Haven Terminal, which already has a spur feeding its southern gate, awaits a northern spur that would lead to the Greenleaf biofuel plant.

The work will be carried out by Providence & Worcester, and overseen by DOT staff, Nursick said. The plan is to lay track up to the private properties; the companies would then be responsible for finishing the route to their docks.

While the companies could be using the existing rail line, it would be inefficient and perhaps not worth the effort, Sheiffele said—they’d have to unload heavy cargo from ships, transfer it to the loading dock, then transfer it again onto trains.

The news of the train tracks was welcomed at the Gulf terminal.

Gulf Oil, which is owned by Cumberland Farms, hauls in petroleum products from the Gulf of Mexico on cargo ships. The company distributes gasoline, heating oil, diesel fuel, jet fuel and kerosene to “over 2,000 branded gasoline retail centers, 12 proprietary oil terminals, and more than 70 other supply terminals,” according to the Port Authority website.

Workers unload large containers of gasoline from cargo ships. The gas is mixed with ethanol, which arrives by truck. The containers then head to their destinations the only way they can—by the highway.

The trucks are remarkably fuel-inefficient, according to a Gulf worker at the terminal Monday: They get 6-7 miles per gallon of gas. And governmental regulations limit the trucks to 80,000 pounds each, a fraction of the weight that can be carried by train.

Distribution would be far more efficient via rail, he noted.

“If you want to have a vital port area, you’ve got to have a rail system.”

Sheiffele conceded the existing train tracks have seen “very little” use. She could recall only two times a train car has used the tracks since 2006, including the Gov. Rell press event. That’s because Logistec didn’t land the big steel contract it was hoping to get, she said. And “the dry cargo business, which uses freight rail, has been really down in the port.”

Sheiffele said petroleum distributors in the port may use the new rail cars to bring in ethanol to the terminal to be mixed with other fuel: “Rail is considered a much safer way to handle that.” And the port’s new bio-fuel plant may use rail to import the plant-based products it turns into fuel, she said.

Nursick commended the city for spearheading the project. “This is exactly what the department has been working for for years. What better place to have rail activity than the most active port in the state?”

Tags: infrastructuretrainsnew haven

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