Amtrak’s R.I. rural removal

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Charlestown, R.I., by Andrea Birdsey Kelly. (Fine Art America)

If the description by two Charlestown, R.I., town council leaders of Amtrak’s plan for an alternate route through that town are accurate, the proposal must be stopped. It is no less than “rural removal,” same as the old “urban removal” that cut a huge swath through urban America in the 1950s and ’60s. Fortunately, Providence was spared most of what had been planned during our urban-renewal era, but many big cities were largely ruined by it, with many poor but viable black neighborhoods demolished, their families cruelly dispersed and replaced by highways or less-civilized neighborhoods, often with ugly “Brutalist” architecture inflicted. Now this creature of a policy seems to have returned in rural form and is breathing down the neck of Charlestown. All to save an estimated one minute in travel time.

Here is how Amtrak’s plan was described in the two councilors’ letter to the editor today:

Straightening the track in Charlestown, as near as we can determine, will save only one minute of travel time between Boston and New York. One minute. The price for this is enormous and unsupportable. In Charlestown alone, it will cost the nation’s taxpayers more than $1 billion and cause the destruction of numerous homes, family farms, historic districts, drinking water aquifers, a wild and scenic river, critical habitats and conservation areas, and it will invade Narragansett Tribal Lands.

The bypass would also destroy the bucolic Burdickville village, demolish the historic districts of Columbia Heights and Kenyon, ruin the productive fourth-generation Stoney Hill Farm, divide the Nature Conservancy’s treasured 1,100-acre Carter Preserve, demolish the Revolutionary-era Amos Green Farm, and invade other protected conservation lands, all to enable long-distance passengers to traverse our town one minute faster.

The plan also brings the threat of eminent domain with a real loss in property value. Real estate values along the Connecticut route have already taken a 25 percent hit.

How can this be so? If it is, the Journal’s online headline got it right: “Charlestown is being railroaded.” Are the disruptions planned for the Connecticut stretch of the route equally dismaying? Maybe the Charlestown councilors, Virginia Lee and Julie Carroccia (president and vice president, respectively, of the council), are exaggerating, or wrong. If so, I will write a post retracting what I have said above. But from what they say, it sounds as if a tragic era long ago put behind us has re-emerged from the Black Lagoon.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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4 Responses to Amtrak’s R.I. rural removal

  1. Steve Musen says:

    Please note that the relocation in Charlestown is a separate plan from the Old Saybrook to Kenyon bypass. While the later may be needed if the water levels in Long Island Sound rise sufficiently to make the current Amtrak route unusable, the relocation in Charlestown does not have that justification. The trains in Charlestown are already going at some of the highest railroad speeds in the country, and the relocation does little to improve upon it. Therefore it is likely to be at the lowest priority for construction and given the paucity of federal dollars, unlikely to be constructed. The problem with its inclusion is that denotation as a potential project may affect the two farms and other owners in limiting their ability to use, improve or sell their properties, as it undermines their clear title to their land.

    The other problem is that inclusion of these unneeded projects reduces the political consensus necessary to get the important portions of the plan built.

    Much of the plan is viable and necessary so it is important not to disparage the entire process.

    Steve Musen

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  2. The current $120+ billion dollar NEC Future plan is rather a raft of proposals which are being pushed through the Tier 1 environmental review as a piece, to be broken up at the Tier 2 level into hundreds of separate projects, some good, some terrible, some at a cost of few million, some at a cost of upwards of $20 billion. To be clear, this is not any ordinary planning, but really a once-in-a-generation rewriting of the blueprint for the entire Northeast Corridor. The current plan dates back to 1978, and this plan (when it reaches a record of decision shortly) will sunset no earlier than 2040. Spread over that many years and that many projects, we are certain that quite a bit of NEC Future will be built, we’re simply not certain of what parts. Our position is that a bad idea rarely gets better with age, or more study — the Federal Railroad Administration has not carried out any environmental studies — so let’s kill this portion of the plan, the “Kenyon to Old Saybrook Bypass” before it gains momentum, as these things do. It is our position that the Bypass proposal poses extraordinary and unnecessary impacts to the historic communities and surrounding complementary environment shared between Southern Rhode Island and Southeastern Connecticut, and as such, should be dropped from NEC Future planning. We appreciate your support on this.
    — Gregory Stroud, Director of Special Projects at the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation.

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  3. Cliff says:

    What the Charlestown town councilors say is true. They may be understating the price tag in Charlestown since the Federal Rail Administration (FRA) is proposing a 1 mile long tunnel through Shumankanuc Hill which will cost somewhere around $1,000,000,000.00 all on it’s own. In Connecticut the FRA originally proposed a 40′ high, miles long bridge right over the very nice Old Lyme Historic District. After much protest they now say they will tunnel under the town. Residents there are not convinced the FRA will keep their word. They are also concerned that if a tunnel were built, vibrating trains would shake and damage the old historic structures above the tunnel.

    No one talks about the East Greenwich Historic District, or all the houses there close to the tracks that will get whacked if they double the number from 2 to 4 tracks as planned.

    No one wants this except Governor Raimondo, some Amtrak riders, the FRA, and most importantly, the giant multinational planning and construction corporations who would reap billions. And that’s what this is primarily, a construction project. Cost, need and damage are secondary considerations.

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  4. barry schiller says:

    You are right, this is a ridiculous plan, but I see almost no chance it could be funded. There is no plan for funding the $120 billion cost of the entire northeast corridor project and with hostility to rail and transit investment from the national GOP we’ll be lucky to maintain existing service.
    Even is some new capital funds can be found, it would surely have to go to building new tunnels under the Hudson and maybe Baltimore, plus upgrades for the electric system. Its unimaginable there will be any interest in supporting the RI bypass but politicians find it useful to “view with alarm,” especially with rail projects that have relatively few users compared to the many highway projects that do much more harm but have many users. So our rail system just limps along.
    Finally, the real problem is what to do along the Connecticut coast where the shoreline rail route is literally along the shoreline and can be at risk from rising sea levels.

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