Gov. Dannel P. Malloy unveiled his transportation plan Wednesday in his annual budget address. The plan’s notable for a two big things – first, for the worrisome lack of information on how we’re going to pay for all of this, and second, for just how little it’ll really change transportation in Connecticut.
For all the talk about vision and designing the transportation system of the future, the plans Gov. Malloy outlined in his speech and in the accompanying plan are really more of the same than anything else.
The clearest sign of that was just how much space asphalt was given in the plan. In his budget address, Malloy dedicated more words to highways and road upgrades than on all of the other forms of transportation – rail, buses, and bike/pedestrian paths – combined. His plan also spends far more on roads and bridges than other forms of transportation.
To be fair, some of the roadway improvements he suggested were very forward looking. It’s a good idea to think about ways to reconnect Middletown’s riverfront with the rest of the city, for example, and find ways to redesign the aging and inconvenient Route 9. It’s also smart to examine alternatives to elevated highways in Waterbury and Hartford, as I-84 in both cities has done incalculable damage to neighborhoods.
But a lot of them sound like the transportation ideas of the last century. Widening I-95 and I-84? Adding more exits? Finishing Route 11? This all sounds depressingly familiar, almost as if we dug those ideas out of the Department of Transportation’s 1972 highway plan. What’s next, building I-684 through Newington and maybe putting up that bridge across Long Island Sound?
The problem is that building more highways to solve congestion problems is self-defeating. More highways means more people in cars instead of on transit, more cars means more congestion, more congestion means we’ll then have to widen the highways to accommodate it all and the cycle starts all over again. Lather, rinse, repeat. The traffic problems aren’t actually solved so much as they are delayed for another generation.
As for public transit, this plan does have plenty of good stuff in it. There are new stations planned for the so-called Hartford Line, which will provide commuter rail from New Haven through Hartford to Springfield. There will be new stations on Metro North’s New Haven Line, and Norwalk’s Walk Bridge will be replaced. The creaky Waterbury Branch will be overhauled. The busway, CTFastrak, will be extended east toward Manchester and Vernont, while a new bus rapid transit line is planned for New London County. All of these things are necessary upgrades and expansions.
However, few of them are truly going to revolutionize the way we travel in the state. The Hartford Line is already under construction – Malloy’s plan just completes what was already proposed years ago. Modernizing the Waterbury Branch is a good idea, as is expanding service on the New Haven Line, but these are services that exist already. They just need to be brought into the 21st Century.
The groundbreaking parts of the plan are those that flew under the radar – the expansion of the busway east and the plans for a new busway line from Norwich to New London. But because neither plan actually creates a dedicated space for buses, relying instead on signaling and traffic management, they may end up more like Boston’s iffy Silver Line than a true bus rapid transit system.
The other vital piece is the addition of more bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure to town centers, and the completion of gaps in a few of the longer statewide pedestrian and biking trails. Urban centers and forward-looking smaller towns across the country are figuring out that cyclists and pedestrians are integral to their communities and the economies, and they’re developing ways to protect and encourage them. It’s good to see us doing the same here in Connecticut.
But overall, this plan is a case of good ideas not taken far enough. What Malloy is proposing is a lot of fixes for things left undone for decades. This is absolutely necessary and I can’t begrudge him that. But the continuing focus on adding lanes to highways isn’t where we need to go as a state.
A truly revolutionary and bold transportation proposal would scrap useless highways like Route 11. It would improve highways without widening them. It would build new rail and bus rapid transit lines to connect Hartford to Waterbury, New London, Bristol, and Bradley Airport. It would prioritize pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure in our cities.
That’s the plan the state needs to actually become a transportation leader. Let’s hope the legislature realizes that.
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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