If you live in Connecticut you live with — and surprisingly close to — state borders. In fact, no matter where you go in our state, you’re never more than about 50 miles away from either New York, Massachusetts, or Rhode Island. So why do we continually treat the state lines as if they’re the edge of the world?
There’s been a bit of fuss in my neck of the woods up near the Massachusetts border recently about plunking a small “pop-up” casino operation run by either Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun down somewhere near the border on I-91, in order to compete with the resort/casino complex that MGM is building in Springfield.
This is a dumb idea for a number of very good reasons, not least of which is that casinos don’t add anything to a city or town that you can’t get by digging a hole in the ground, filling it with money, and setting it on fire. But the whole idea of this new casino, which would have to be approved by the legislature, is that it would somehow “capture” gamblers who were on their way north to Massachusetts, and keep those casino dollars here in Connecticut.
I don’t think it works that way. Why would gamblers stop at a dinky little slots parlor in Windsor Locks instead of driving 15 minutes further north to a much larger, much better equipped casino? And how desperate and parochial are we that we feel the need to stop the flow of dollars at the border when they’re going to stay within the same relatively small metropolitan area no matter what?
There are other examples of this kind of state line-focused thinking. When Mass Mutual shifts jobs the 12 miles between its Springfield and Enfield offices, for example, the two states often claim the movement as a victory or a loss — even though the moves have little impact on the economy as a whole. Another example is the transportation system, which often runs right up near the border without crossing it. SEAT, the bus system in New London County, runs within sight of the border with Westerly, R.I., and CT Transit doesn’t have anything but an incidental transfer to western Massachusetts’s Pioneer Valley Transportation Authority system. Danbury’s bus system does have one line that runs to Brewster, N.Y., but that’s it.
Yet another example is the desire of some lawmakers to put tolls up on the borders to “catch” drivers passing through from out of state, without giving any thought to the many, many people who cross the borders every day, and the dramatic effect border tolls would have on the economy of nearby towns.
The problem is that too many people in our tiny little state think of the regions beyond the state lines as either a blank space on the map or a too-distant, almost foreign land. Given that we also think this way about each one of our 169 tiny towns, it’s not a total surprise, but this kind of inward, border-focused thinking makes no sense in an increasingly interconnected world and is an impediment to regional economic development.
It’s impossible to separate our regions and economies based exclusively on the state borders. Enfield has deep connections to Springfield, while the villages of Pawcatuck and Westerly in Rhode Island are basically two halves of the same city. And where would Fairfield County, especially Greenwich and Stamford, be without nearby New York City?
The New York connection is one of the few ways Connecticut has cooperated well with other states, largely because we’ve had to. Our economy, and the livelihoods of many of our residents, depends on it. Metro-North’s heavily-used New Haven Line is a collaboration between New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Connecticut’s Department of Transportation, and while that relationship hasn’t always been rosy, cooperation has been absolutely necessary.
Other transportation projects are drawing us closer to our neighbors. The New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter rail set to open in 2016 is one great example, and will hopefully help draw the three big cities on the I-91 corridor even closer together. Cross-border organizations like New England’s Knowledge Corridor, which promotes the region under that brand name, do also exist and conduct useful, if too often ignored, work. We need more initiatives like this.
Our region is getting smaller as we become more mobile, and our connections with our neighbors are becoming more and more vital. Connecticut’s leaders need to start thinking of the wider region beyond our borders not just as unknown territory or a competitor, but as much-needed partners.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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