It’s an immutable law of physics that the government will always grow and become more expensive, causing our tax burden to grow right along with it. Over the years, I’ve passed up few opportunities to point this out. But when state government shows some restraint even amid public pressure to do otherwise, congratulations are very much in order.
To my pleasant surprise, the Malloy administration and the state Department of Transportation are balking at spending hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade freight lines, currently used by Housatonic Railroad, to bring passenger rail service north from Danbury up to Pittsfield, Mass.
Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation announced it will spend $12 million to acquire that state’s section of the line from the state border at Canaan, Conn., where Housatonic Railroad is headquartered, 37 miles north to Pittsfield in central Berkshire County. The administration of Gov. Deval Patrick has already set aside $113 million for the project.
Disclosure: I work as a newspaper editor in the Berkshires and would like nothing more than to see that aging region receive an economic shot in the arm, along with the younger demographic railroad passengers would surely bring. But as a Connecticut taxpayer, I have an obligation to ask myself what’s in it for my state? The answer, as far as I can tell, is nothing.
Just about everyone, including me, likes the idea of passenger rail service service up the length of the Housatonic Valley. After all, the railroad is a proud piece of our heritage. And a diesel locomotive pulling railcars full of people has a smaller carbon footprint than dozens of automobiles carrying those people to the same destination as the rail line.
But as is often the case, the devil is in the details. A consulting group hired by Housatonic Railroad initially projected a median ridership of 2 million one-way fares per year — a figure no one could repeat with a straight face. The number was eventually adjusted down to 1 million, but it still strains credulity.
Also at the behest of Housatonic Railroad, a Williams College economics professor conducted a recent study predicting that passenger trains running to and from the Berkshires and Manhattan could increase economic output by $344 million in the Berkshires during the first 10 years of construction and service.
Be that as it may, let’s say the new projection is accurate and a million people who are otherwise unwilling or unable to drive a car, visit the Berkshires each year. Where does that leave Connecticut?
Western Connecticut is already served by Metro-North commuter trains that travel to Danbury and Waterbury. And Metro-North’s Harlem line extends 35 miles farther north than Danbury, along the border to Wassaic, N.Y., servicing even Connecticut’s far northwest corner and southern Berkshire County. Clearly, western Connecticut already is well served by passenger rail.
If extended from Danbury, Housatonic Railroad’s passenger service would travel through New Milford, Kent, Cornwall, Falls Village and Canaan — all fine towns, but they simply do not have the cultural offerings available in the Berkshires. Why spend the weekend in the backwoods of Cornwall or Canaan when you can travel a little farther north, stay in Canyon Ranch and enjoy Tanglewood, Shakespeare & Company, and Jacob’s Pillow?
In other words, if this rail plan comes to pass, western Connecticut will be little more than flyover country for the culturally inclined who will sit in air conditioned passenger cars, connect their devices to wifi and spend their disposable income at out-of-state destinations.
State Sen. Clark Chapin, R-New Milford, whose district includes almost the entire length of the Connecticut portion of Housatonic’s line, told me there is a lot of support among his constituents for the passenger project, as evidenced by an unscientific online survey he conducted recently in which almost 900 people responded. More than 80 percent said they supported the concept, but most said they would not ride it very often.
When I contacted Connecticut DOT spokesman Judd Everhart last week, he told me passenger service north of Danbury “would be great” but there is no funding in the state budget for it because it’s simply “not a priority.”
And it’s no wonder. We have lot of more important transportation needs in this state: a $570 million busway that will connect New Britain and Hartford; an ancient and malfunctioning train bridge in Norwalk; a New Haven-Hartford-Springfield high-speed commuter rail line, which is currently under construction and to which the state has committed hundreds of millions of dollars. Oh, and we still have to fix our roads, which the White House recently judged to be the worst in the nation.
If officials in Massachusetts want rail service to the Berkshires, let them pay for it — all of it. And kudos to the Malloy administration for not taking the bait.