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Two breaks we can unite around

With the recent rail advancements in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the northern end of the Northeast Corridor (NEC) between Boston and Washington (Bos–Wash) is a straight modern line filled with various urban, university, airport, retail and entertainment stops. However, as the rail reaches Long Island Sound and the Connecticut border, it turns into a winding antiquated line of parochial stations and repair patches. During this same transition, the existing NEC passes by the original Brooklyn–Boston corridor, a pioneering attempt to connect Boston and New York via Long Island. Reports about a brand-new high-speed rail (HSR) line running through the depths of suburban auto-oriented Connecticut instead of through Rhode Island’s modern corridor and other rail-oriented regions show there’s a growing urgency to remedy the NEC’s weakest link but through plans that do not take into account existing systems and activity on the ground. Alongside Rhode Island, both the delicate Connecticut Shoreline route and straight Long Island rail corridor across the Sound have important roles between Boston and New York today and can resolve the major NEC gap for the benefit of each Bos–Wash state.

The existing rail-oriented Shoreline and Long Island corridors can be reinforced for the betterment of each side of the Sound while completing the high-speed link between Boston and New York. The corridors have the potential to create two major nodes within the sparsely populated routes between Greater New York City and Rhode Island. New London, Connecticut, with the right small-scale landfill techniques and town-gown development, can become an active urban water hub for the entire Bos-Wash north region. In addition, Riverhead/Calverton and nearby Greenport and Plum Island in New York have the potential to form a major intermodal system of collegiate activity, passenger travel, freight transport and regional tourism regardless of whether the Sound link is by water, road or rail.


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The Corridors

The Connecticut Shoreline—the fragile “go to” link for 150 years

When the NEC transitions from Rhode Island to Connecticut, it runs on a 19th-century corridor designed for an outdated mixture of water and rail-borne commerce. Even today, the route contains a collection of fishing-village jogs, various active drawbridges and flood-prone wetland routes that have slowed traffic for decades. However, over the past 150 years, the corridor has outlasted the variety of alternative Boston–New York links built across New England, including the direct yet very fragile New Haven to Boston airline route through the Connecticut hills and the long water-to-rail link via Fall River, Massachusetts. It has also endured decades of neglect and indifference in its home state where, since the 1960s, the State of Connecticut has pushed any and all rail development by the wayside. Unlike Rhode Island and Massachusetts, which maintained and modernized its rail service in the late-20th century, Connecticut shifted funding and attention to major highway-only projects instead of equal road/rail development, climaxing with an attempt to double-deck Interstate 95 (I-95) from New Haven to New York in the early 2000s. Moreover, Connecticut’s 169-town mind-set of independent municipal planning devoid of county or state oversight flourished after World War II. During this era, each Connecticut Shoreline town held on to what it had—underused prewar rail stations and hand-me-down trains from Virginia for commuter service—while welcoming New York City’s growing influence and New Haven’s uptick as means to form some sense of regionalism again in the state. Concurrent with those changes along the shore, Hartford’s systematic rail removal and bus conversion in the 1980s for “Hartford 1995” and additional removal of more rail for buses in the 2000s led to the official closure of the Boston–New York City inland route via Hartford in 2004. This shutdown relegated all train traffic between Boston and New York to the antiquated Shoreline corridor. The shift immediately bolstered the Connecticut Shoreline’s opportunities but also created an enormous new pressure on the decaying coastal rail link. This ultimately led to the 2010-12 Amtrak high-speed-rail plan to bypass Connecticut’s congested shoreline for, ironically, Hartford, after decades of rail removal for bus service that still continues today with a new rail-to-bus conversion project between Hartford and New Britain, Connecticut.

In contrast to Hartford, the Connecticut Shoreline has gradually turned into an urban rail-oriented beachhead in an otherwise suburban state, as New York City’s regional influence continues to advance eastward to New London. New Haven, after 200 years of fighting with Hartford to become the dominant city in Connecticut, has finally started to break away in the last 15 years partly because of Yale and the coastal city’s rail development. However, this growing shoreline activity is also happening under the weight of needing to reverse 50 years of disrepair along the line. The value of modernizing the Shoreline corridor and getting each town on board is still within reach, but there’s also a need to find another rail-oriented route to take on additional traffic between New York and Boston. Such a corridor exists across the Sound.

The forgotten Brooklyn–Boston corridor and the fatal jog

In the 1840s, before any other direct corridor to Boston, the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) built its main line all the way to Greenport, New York, with the primary intention of bridging the Sound and linking Brooklyn to Boston. The corridor was on its way with each new stretch of track and both Plum and Fishers islands in sight, the two central land masses that form the glacial chain between Long Island and Rhode Island. However, the LIRR would hit a brick wall when it reached a still-prominent ferry empire in the Sound run by industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt, which required Vanderbilt’s consent for any Sound crossing. In turn, an effective yet downgraded link was built, a direct ferry line from LIRR’s Greenport terminus to the New York, Providence and Boston (NYP&B) Railroad’s water link in Stonington, Connecticut, near the Rhode Island border. A longer ferry from Greenport to Norwich, Connecticut, opened up as well, connecting Long Island to a winding rail corridor through the hills of Connecticut away from the straight, flat Rhode Island route. In less than a year, the dominant Vanderbilt ferry empire would acquire each ferry line and cut the direct Greenport to Stonington connection because of the company’s personal conflicts with the Boston–Providence Railroad (B&P) further north and NYP&B, leaving only the winding Norwich connection and longer prospective water link to Fall River. The jog away from Stonington and Rhode Island ultimately brought down the entire corridor in a matter of years and paved the way for the New York, New Haven and Hartford railroad to build the fragile Shoreline Corridor in its place.

The second major Long Island–New England initiative would come in the mid-20th century, when rail service started to dissipate with the rise of the Interstate Highway System. Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York took on the same challenge as the LIRR of trying to convert the entire length of Long Island into a major corridor between Boston and New York City. His goal was to break apart Long Island’s longstanding “economic cul-de-sac” status by creating a new direct-bridge connection from Long Island to Westerly, Rhode Island, in November 1964. The initiative also created a new regional masterplan of modern industrial and urban links across Suffolk County. The corridor and bridge initiatives were within the realm of feasibility and came on the heels of the larger Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (CBBT) initiative in Virginia, which was completed in 1964. Plus, within this corridor plan, a set of new modern airport, industrial and residential stops started to form around the LIRR’s main line to Riverhead and Greenport. However, despite some strong initial advancement, the Rockefeller bridge initiative would be brought down by the same fatal jog seen with the LIRR. After the Long Island–Rhode Island link was proposed, Connecticut pushed to become part of the initiative, leading to a series of compromise routes including a hard 90-degree turn to Old Saybrook, Connecticut, and Hartford in August 1965. When the project ramped up in the 1960s, Boston’s 1970s reinvention and Providence’s 1990s reversal were still far off, thus the Old Saybrook jog between Hartford, Providence and Boston held up and was eventually selected. The compromised initiative would drag on for years until ultimately collapsing under its own political weight.

Finally, with the rise of rail service again in the United States, from 2009 to 2011, the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) also contended with Long Island’s “economic cul-de-sac” issue by proposing a new Bos–Wash rail corridor that ran through the heavily populated terrain of Queens, Nassau County and Suffolk County. The UPenn corridor took advantage of the old Brooklyn–Boston line and made the pioneering move to show a new NEC running across Long Island. However, the route would also take a sudden 90-degree turn, shifting northward from MacArthur Airport across the Sound at its widest point to run along a hodgepodge of Connecticut highway medians leading up to Hartford. The sudden Long Island rail jog mimicked the Rockefeller compromise before it—a political shift to accommodate Hartford’s push to be included in the initiative—and by doing so bypassed Providence and Rhode Island’s 15 years of modern rail development for the depths of suburban auto-oriented central Connecticut.

Every major historic initiative to establish a link from New York to Boston via Long Island has been stifled by the same jog. However, today, if the Sound link process was based solely on urban rail-oriented progress compared with suburban auto-centric practice, there is no jog within the Long Island corridor, and it simply continues east to Rhode Island while the urban Shoreline route in Connecticut is maintained and reinforced.

In general, the Long Island–New England corridor can take on many forms and levels of service, whether by water, road or rail. Strong intermodal rail-to-ferry links between Greenport, Westerly and New London will make it possible to link together all three states’ commuter-rail termini once the MBTA reaches Westerly. Even today, New London could reroute its fast Sea Jet noncar service from Long Island’s Orient Point auto dock to the LIRR’s rail terminus in Greenport a few miles away, creating an all-transit rail/ferry/rail link between Long Island and the NEC in 2012. In time, if an island-hopping road system similar to that of the Florida Keys or North Carolina’s Outer Banks was built across Plum and Fishers islands, it would create a necklace of new regional tourist points and coordinated farming-transport routes between Long Island and New England. Both islands would begin to open up for new uses as Watch Hill (Westerly) and Greenport continue to evolve into popular modern tourist villages. The road would also become a critical toll link that provides a much-needed relief valve from I-95 and dampens any future highway-expansion arguments in Connecticut. Finally, if a major rail-tunnel link was built similar to Europe’s Chunnel and Japan’s Seikan Tunnel or mimicked a long road span like the Confederation Bridge in Canada, the CBBT or various other worldwide precedents, it would create the first major high-speed-rail corridor of diverse airport, university, residential, retail and industrial links between New York City and Boston.

The Nodes

New London’s potential as a regional urban water port

The City of New London is similar in size and scope to Boston’s historic North End and has a very strong intermodal rail-ferry system. However, the small city struggles with local detachment from its major institutions, such as the Coast Guard Academy and Connecticut College to the north. In time, though, by taking a chapter from Boston’s own success, New London could pursue the benefits of careful, scaled landfill as a means to connect the urban center with its academic campuses. Filling in a small inlet just north of downtown would create the means for the Academy and college to progress southward from their historic campuses and across the waterfront before finally reaching downtown. The move would allow New London’s urban core to become a working center of both collegiate and professional activity with strong regional connections by water and rail.

In addition to local landfill and town-gown development, New London could also serve as a vital urban port for various academic programs in New Haven; Kingston, Rhode Island; and Providence. Yale University, in particular, whose hometown of New Haven currently has an expansive industrial waterfront that separates the university from the Sound, can now easily reach New London’s rich urban water port by commuter rail from New Haven’s downtown State Street Station. The university could treat the historic port as a satellite for any program in need of stronger water access. Plus, as Yale continues to expand university activity westward to New York via its West Campus and various partners in Fairfield County, it can also promote the value of pushing eastward as well. The many preserved islands, ports and beaches that are now accessible from New Haven via New London are still untapped resources near the university. Plus, stronger service to New London also strengthens a valuable commuter line for hundreds of faculty and staff members, and provides the impetus to build up and expand State Street Station for the Yale community at large. Following Providence’s rail-station model, New Haven could create a major architectural rail project at State Street Station that supersedes the city’s distant Union Station and further strengthens the entire New Haven–New London corridor.

Riverhead/Calverton—A Cornell satellite with room to grow

Since Cold War operations at aerospace and defense technology company Northrop Grumman in Calverton ceased on Long Island’s East End, Suffolk County’s seat of Riverhead has felt the effects of the regional economy changing back to agricultural development and tourism. The small urban center has been home to Cornell University’s Long Island agricultural satellite since 1917, and both the town and university in tandem have started to redefine the urban center’s future role in the affluent county. In 2011, Cornell helped transform the site of Riverhead’s largest industrial mill into an extensive waterfront park while creating a new urban farm along the town’s Main Street. Riverhead also attracted Hyatt to build a new major hotel resort in its city center adjacent to the town’s aquarium near the Cornell satellite, creating a new tourist economy in a region that could feed off the massive Hamptons market to the south. With this budding progress, the biggest prospects for Riverhead still remain untapped: the region’s extensive Cold War infrastructure including Calverton Field to the west and Plum Island to the east.

In the last few years, both Plum Island and Calverton Field have been gradually decommissioned and groomed for new future uses. Plum Island, a Cold War bio-experimentation base just off Orient Point, has a limited range of potential uses because of its past history; however, many of them can be infrastructure-based, which would require a major cleanup as part of their development. Alongside various road and rail connections that would treat and conserve portions of the island as a private nature preserve, Plum Island could also support a peripheral deepwater-to-rail port for New York City, a new wind-farm array and other forms of regional infrastructure on already disturbed land. Riverhead’s Calverton Field, which already has its own rail spur from the LIRR main line, could also work as a modern rail-to-air freight hub for UPS, FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service while providing future air-passenger service as space and access start to dwindle across New York City and Nassau County. Altogether a major intermodal system of large-scale water, rail and air-freight services between New York and Boston can emerge in the Riverhead area. From the town’s small Cornell outpost to its existing Cold War systems, Riverhead/Calverton could become the major missing node in the Bos–Wash corridor’s next generation of top-tier passenger and freight-system connections.

The benefit of both lines—two like-minded regions and New York City’s four urban boroughs within the NEC

Today, the Connecticut Shoreline corridor has remained the delicate go-to Boston–New York City path for 150 years while the Long Island link has the potential to become a major corridor of diverse stations between Boston and New York. Together, both lines can mitigate and eventually resolve the weakest link within the NEC and will have a major effect on New York City itself. The four urban New York boroughs of 1.4 million people or more—Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx—surpass every metropolis in the Bos–Wash with the exception of Philadelphia. Through both direct and spur access, all four boroughs will have a place in the various high-speed tiers of NEC rail for the first time in their history.

Altogether, the value and benefits of both lines beat out any argument to invest billions of dollars in a new Connecticut rail corridor across suburban regions and cities that have made it a strategic goal to remove rail in favor of cars and buses. Instead, you have two existing corridors that want to become stronger rail-oriented links between Boston and New York. Both should play a role in the next generation of HSR within the Bos–Wash.


Nicholas Caruso AICP is an urban designer and writer. His work focuses on modern adaptive reuse, brownfield redevelopment and transportation design. He is a graduate of the Yale School of Architecture. You may reach him at nicholas.j.caruso@gmail.com.

Top image: 1849—The remnants of the original Brooklyn–Boston Corridor before the construction of the fragile Connecticut Shoreline route (courtesy of the Boston Public Library Norman B. Leventhal Map Center)