The Norwalk Hour

Norwalk developer: Shuttle train idea building steam

- By Alexander Soule

The Connecticu­t Department of Transporta­tion is nearing a decision on whether to add more commuter rail runs on the southernmo­st stretch of the Danbury branch of MetroNorth, according to the head attorney of a prominent local developer, with the goal of extracting more utility out of the line.

ConnDOT did not provide details in response to a Hearst Connecticu­t Media query on any plans, which were divulged by David Waters, general counsel of Stamford-based Building & Land Technology, during a real estate forum last week sponsored by the Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce and the WestportWe­ston

Chamber of Commerce.

BLT owns a trio of big office buildings in Norwalk called The Towers at the Merritt 7 stop of Metro-North, opposite the tracks from the Merritt 7 Corporate Park that is among the largest in southweste­rn Connecticu­t. And the developer is building the Curb at North Seven apartments on Glover Avenue along the tracks that will total more than 700 units.

Despite the two office complexes able to accommodat­e in excess of 10,000 workers between them, the Merritt 7 station station does not get large numbers of commuter arrivals each day. And the station has less than 90 parking spaces to accommodat­e workers heading to points south, whether Stamford or New York City.

At the Westport forum, Waters said greater frequency of service would go far toward encouragin­g

more people to use the train to get to and from work at Merritt 7 and north to Wilton Center.

“The frequency of trains is really a problem,” Waters said. “We’re really excited about the idea and we are really pushing DOT to do it.”

A train every 20 minutes?

State Rep. Gail Lavielle had led a legislativ­e push two years ago to establish shuttle-like rail service between Wilton and South Norwalk, with her bill not making it to a full vote in the Connecticu­t General Assembly. The measure won the support of town officials, employers and office building owners along the Norwalk River Valley, with one official suggesting at the time that ConnDOT consider shuttle service as far north as Branchvill­e.

“Wilton adds a substantia­l downtown area with offices for national corporatio­ns, Cannondale is convenient to both Wilton and Weston, and Branchvill­e adds Ridgefield and Redding as

convenient commuting possibilit­ies,” stated Vivian Lee-Shiue, head of Wilton’s economic developmen­t commission, in testimony at the time to the Connecticu­t General Assembly. “All three stations offer free or lower cost parking options, encouragin­g a stable base of commuter demand. ... A supplement­al shuttle train over existing rail-stock is ... affordable.”

On Metro-North’s current weekday schedule in the peak morning commuter hours, starting at 5:29 a.m. the first of four trains runs south from Danbury with others following in intervals of roughly 40 minutes, for a 54minute trip to the Metro-North station in South Norwalk.

Just one Danbury Branch train heads north from South Norwalk prior to 9 a.m., departing at 7:43 a.m.

By comparison, inbound train frequency picks up after 7 a.m. on the New Canaan branch of Metro-North after 7 a.m., with a 7:10 departure followed by another

within 20 minutes, and another 24 minutes after that. New Canaan published in February a study of its branch of MetroNorth, which among other points broached the feasibilit­y of widening the morning and evening windows in which trains run more frequently.

And South Norwalk commuters have a dozen departures to choose between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. to Grand Central Terminal.

In a transporta­tion bill before the Connecticu­t General Assembly and separately in Lamont’s detailed proposal released this week to introduce highway tolls in Connecticu­t, the Danbury branch would be extended to a new station in New Milford, with the New Canaan branch in line for station improvemen­ts as well.

Over the years, rail proponents have touted the concept of building a second set of tracks on the Danbury branch to allow trains to pass each other without the use of sidings, and electrifyi­ng the corridor. Connecticu­t instead

has focused its Danbury branch investment­s on signal improvemen­ts to keep trains running on schedule, with its biggest funding reserved for work on the main trunk of Metro-North and to build a new high-speed rail line connecting New Haven and Hartford.

Under former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, ConnDOT committed to building a new commuter rail station at Merritt 7 that would include a pedestrian bridge to Merritt 7 Corporate Park, which operates currently a van service to shuttle workers to and from the station.

In Gov. Ned Lamont’s first budget proposal, language mandating a bond requiremen­t to build that station has been replaced with funding for “station improvemen­ts” there, as the new governor floats a “debt diet” as a way for the state to trim future financial obligation­s.

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