By Gregory B. Hladky
11:00 AM EDT, August 9, 2011
Like some vampire zombie rising from its grave, the once-dead dream of a new commuter rail station in Orange has staggered to life once again thanks to vaguely worded “special act” recently signed into law by Gov. Dannel Malloy.
It's a “special” piece of legislation all right, one that even lawmakers who voted against it want to avoid talking about. “It was a really messy situation and I'm not looking to get into this,” explained one state legislator who agreed to comment only if his name wasn't used.
For years, West Haven and Orange fought over which should get the next train station built along the crowded New Haven Line railroad. West Haven was declared the victor after a multitude of studies. Ground was broken last November on the planned $118 million Metro-North station between Railroad Avenue and Hood Terrace.
With both the state and federal governments deep in debt, there wouldn't be any money for a station in Orange. And would we really need to put up a new commuter rail platform at a location barely three miles from the new West Haven station and just over four miles from the existing Milford stop?
Oh yes we do, according to the special act that three Orange-area lawmakers managed to shoehorn through the General Assembly this year: “In the event federal or state funding for the construction of the proposed Orange Train Station is not available for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2012, the Department of Transportation is authorized to enter into an agreement... with a property developer and property owner of the site for the proposed Orange Train Station, for the construction and operation of such station.”
Sounds like it's a done deal. State Sen. Gayle Slossberg, a Milford Democrat whose district includes both Orange and part of West Haven, certainly seems to think so.
In an e-mailed newsletter, Slossberg informed her constituents that the law involves “an innovative initiative to create a unique public/private partnership and funding strategy for construction of a Metro-North rail station in Orange.”
That public/private partnership involves a deal with Dichello Distributors on Marsh Hill Road in Orange. The beer distributorship has been lobbying for years to build a station on its property abutting the rail line.
The company has offered to put up or raise the estimated $71 million needed to build a station and parking facilities for 2,000 cars on the site. But Dichello wants some guaranties from the state about scheduled train stops and getting paid back down the line — conditions the state Department of Transportation had rejected.
Except that the DOT has commissioned a $300,000 study to look at the Orange proposal to see if there would be any need for another station just minutes from the West Haven stop and minutes from Milford's platform.
But DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick says that just because the state's spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study and the legislature passed a law authorizing a deal for the Orange station, it doesn't mean it's actually going to happen.
“The language in the bill gives the Department the necessary ‘authorization' required to enter into a public/private partnership. … It does not force us to do so,” insists Nursick, “it gives us the legal authority to do so.” He says that study will help the department decide if the new station is worth doing.
State Rep. Themis Klarides is pretty sure what that decision will be. Klarides is from Derby, represents part of Orange, is the deputy House Republican leader and vice chair of the state GOP. “I think eventually it will happen,” she says – and with Dichello Distributors: “I don't see a lot of other businesses jumping in. They're at the top of the list to be in this thing.”
And tapping into private cash is the only way forward for a project that apparently refuses to die. Klarides concedes those financial arrangements involving Dichello Distributors still need to be “ironed out.”
After all, says Klarides, “I'm sure they're not going to do it for free.”
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