I traveled to Washington, New York, and Philadelphia recently, where I spent a lot of my time exploring by riding around on the trains. This is what I do for fun. While I was there, though, I learned a lot about cities, transportation, and how everything can fit together.
One of the things I learned was that transit, in every case, is the glue that holds cities and regions together. Transit gives people choice in how they get around, and it gives people access to places they might not otherwise have gone. Good transit systems don’t work just inside the city, but through and around it as well.
That’s why I was glad to see this week that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy intends to expand CTFastrak east from Hartford out toward Manchester.
CTFastrak is a phenomenal success story. It’s been lauded as a leader in bus rapid transit, and ridership numbers are already exceeding projections. So it makes sense to start talking about expansion.
The eastward extension is just in the planning stages, but it looks like it won’t be the sort of dedicated bus-only road that currently runs between Hartford and New Britain. Instead, the eastern expansion would make use of the high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on I-84.
I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, any expansion of the line is a positive thing, and better transit east of the river is always welcome. And it’s not like the HOV lanes, which were one of the failed transportation ideas of the 1990s, are getting a lot of use otherwise.
On the other hand, the HOV lanes may not end up being exclusive to buses — which means that CTFastrak would be running on a road with other cars. It’s possible then that the buses could get stuck in traffic, which is exactly what CTFastrak is supposed to avoid. I’d much rather see those lanes closed to cars and made bus-only.
In fact, that was the spirit of the original intent for the HOV lanes anyway, according to the Journal Inquirer’s archives. When the first HOV lanes were completed on I-84 and I-384 in 1989, they required a minimum of three occupants per vehicle and were, in effect, bus-only lanes. Public pressure led the DOT to change the restriction to two or more passengers per vehicle when the I-91 lanes were completed, and all of the lanes then began to see more usage, though it was still anemic according to standards at that time.
Another potential issue is that the highway doesn’t always go where the people are, and highways often aren’t great places for transit stations. I’ve been to stations like this in Chicago and Philadelphia, and they often seem disconnected from the surrounding neighborhoods. They might be useful for park and ride, but really good transit is also within walking distance of destinations.
But I am cautiously optimistic. If the state Department of Transportation can make bus rapid transit work on HOV lanes, I’d love to see it happen north of Hartford as well. The HOV lanes on I-91 are just sitting there, begging for better bus connections to Windsor, the airport, and Enfield. That could be an excellent complement to the forthcoming Hartford Line, which will start commuter rail service next year.
Speaking of highways, something else I learned from my travels is that they are always an impediment when they run in the middle of a city. They’re a barrier, they cut neighborhoods off from one another, and they’re daunting to cross under or over on bridges. The best thing to do with them is to get them out of the way as much as possible. Philadelphia lowered a highway well below grade, and made its footprint as small as possible. Boston buried theirs underground. Washington still has a major highway problem, but tunnels have made it somewhat more bearable.
Right now Hartford is burdened with several major highways cutting through it. One of the worst offenders, the midcentury monster that is the I-84 viaduct, is slated to be replaced, and I’m glad to see that DOT is listening to residents input for what could and should replace it.
The easiest thing to do would be to create an at-grade or below-grade highway. The better thing to do would be a tunnel. But the prospect that really intrigues me is the idea of an urban boulevard, an urban parkway that would reconnect the street grid. This would be a pain for the traffic that flows through the city without touching it, but it would be a great thing for the city itself. I’m sure it would be a traffic nightmare, but maybe through-traffic could be rerouted. Maybe we could finally build that bypass around the city, instead of trying to route all traffic right through it. The possibilities are intriguing.
The major thing that I took away from all my travels, though, is that transportation needs consistent funding if we want to keep our cities and our state moving. I’m encouraged that the governor has