Some 15 years ago, urbanist Michael Gallis penned a report that warned Western New England that it was in danger of becoming a “cul de sac” with limited transportation access and a dimmed economic future. In the years since, we have remained reliant on cars — currently 81 percent of metro Hartford commutes alone — while other competing metro areas have begun to aggressively build out transportation options.
Along with the too frequent warnings of outdated infrastructure coming from more than 100-year-old rail bridges failing and 50-year-old highway bridges reaching the end of their useful lives, there have been some positive steps to get us out of the “cul de sac.” But if we wish to remain an economically competitive region, we must continue to aggressively invest in non highway transportation alternatives.
The first rapid transit line in the state, CTfastrak, comes online the first quarter of 2015, linking employment centers and residential areas in Hartford, West Hartford, Newington and New Britain and the adjacent towns. More than 83,000 jobs are within a half-mile of CTfastrak and 159,000 are within a two-mile corridor, according to CT Department of Labor and Other Commercial Data Providers.
In the last quarter of 2016, 17 trains a day will travel from Hartford to New Haven at commuter rail prices with easy connections to New York City. Rail service begins to have real meaning with trains frequent enough to go to and from business meetings on the Hartford-New Haven-New York corridor.
To complement the transportation system, a series of initiatives to support Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) are being developed. CT DECD has a new point person to spur TOD and new staffing and resources have been added at CT DOT to support TOD.
A fund managed by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) offers pre-development and acquisition loans to support development around CTfastrak and NHHS Rail transit stops. Even in advance of the opening of these two critical services, development at transit stations is bubbling even before the launch. Within a year almost 1,200 housing units will be under construction in downtown Hartford. All other towns on both corridors are working to add stations or development nearby.
While it will take time for redevelopment around the 21 stations on CTfastrak and New Haven Hartford Springfield rail to gather steam, we should also be looking ahead to what is next. The next big gap is regular rail service from the Hartford-Springfield metropolitan area of 1.7 million people with the 5 million in metropolitan Boston. Getting connected is critical. What has been called the “new economic geography” means that getting linked up to “hotter” economic regions such as Boston and New York pays significant dividends in spin-off businesses and back-office functions. Though significant, the full cost of connecting to Boston from Hartford-Springfield is likely to be less than replacing one freeway bridge on the Connecticut River alone.
But completing the New York-Hartford-Springfield-Boston rail connection is only part of the picture. We need to continue to build mobility inside the region. There is talk, and there has been planning, for a CTfastrak East from Hartford to Manchester and ultimately to UConn’s Storrs campus. This would cost a fraction of the price of the first rapid transit link, which required substantial new construction, since high occupancy vehicle lanes are available for much of the distance. CTfastrak East could efficiently transport residents of Hartford to jobs in cities and towns east of the river and vice versa. Feeder routes would extend the reach of rapid transit to job locations and other attractions off the rapid transit line. More than 20,000 people commute west over the river into Hartford, while more than 5,000 Hartford residents commute east for work.
But, some will say, funding is tight, how can we even think about spending money on rail and rapid transit services? Take a look around the country. From coast to coast, areas from Charlotte to San Diego have spent their own money to complement federal funds to build rapid transit and rail networks. Connecting our region to faster growing economic centers and building a rapid transit network in the region are investments in the future that will help retain and attract the prized skilled 25- to 45-year-old demographic. We need to invest to connect, to compete, and to prove wrong the dire predictions of becoming a “cul de sac,” and to move our economy forward.
Lyle Wray is the executive director of Capitol Region Council of Governments.