I have good news and bad news about transit. The good news is that we can make public transit in Connecticut much better. The bad news is that it’s going to take time, money, and changing the way we think about how we get around.
Connecticut has a massive and diverse transit system, including three rail lines, eight state-owned CTTransit bus regions, and 13 other separate public bus services. All of these services cover the state in a patchwork of lines and systems that are sometimes easy to navigate and sometimes not.
The rail lines, including the heavily traveled Metro-North, need upgrades both in service and in infrastructure. Metro-North is a decent way to get to New York, but bridges along the route are in need of repair. Metro-North passengers are constantly begging for more cars on each train during peak hours, because a long commute into the city is no fun when you’re packed in like sardines.
Metro-North is also not cheap. It’s not as expensive as Amtrak, but constant fare increases have put a lot of stress on daily riders in already pricey lower Fairfield County.
The Shore Line East service from New London to New Haven and Stamford is badly neglected. This route needs more service and attention. A long-term goal of the line should be to extend service to Mystic, Stonington, Pawcatuck/Westerly, and even to Wickford Junction, RI — where passengers could connect to Boston’s commuter rail system. This kind of linkage between a New York-focused system and a Boston-focused one could be an incredible economic benefit to the state that’s stuck in the middle.
The Hartford Line is in its infancy, but has been plagued by delays. Part of the problem is the choke point in Hartford, where Union Station is served by only a single track and platform. Trains cannot pass one another there, and have to wait for other trains to clear. The decaying second platform of the beautiful old station should be restored. Double-tracking will hopefully exist on the entire route up through Springfield at some point, and new stations built in North Haven, Newington, downtown Windsor Locks, and Enfield. That will allow for much-needed service increases, especially north of Hartford.
As for the bus system, it varies depending on where you are. Greater Hartford’s system is built on a hub-and-spoke model, which means that the majority of local lines and all of the express lines terminate downtown. This is great if you want to go downtown, but much more of a pain if you need to go somewhere else. There are very few “crosstown” or suburb-to-suburb routes.
New Haven’s system is, for now, an absolute mess. But the state Department of Transportation, in collaboration with the city and other stakeholders, is finally looking into overhauling the system. Among the recommendations for any overhaul are consolidations of bus stops, increasing frequency on major corridors, mini-transfer hubs spread out all across the city instead of a single downtown hub, express routes, on-demand service for less-traveled routes, and crosstown lines.
All of these ideas could be applied to Hartford, and to other parts of the state. Hartford also has a wealth of unused or lightly-used rail lines that could be converted to CTFastrak bus-only corridors like the one between Hartford and New Britain. The so-called Griffin Line running from downtown through Bloomfield is one — and could become part of a faster route to Bradley Airport.
But the biggest change that we need to make is to our way of thinking about transit. How can we get people who don’t use the system on board? People in the suburbs don’t think about much beyond cars as a means of transportation because the bus system is slow, infrequent, and confusing to new users.
The GoCT card, which can be used on any CTTransit bus, is a step in the right direction. It would be better if those cards could be used on any system anywhere in the state. The bus system maps need a refresh, too; the Hartford system map looks like a plate of multicolored spaghetti.
But second, people have to be willing to step outside the car in the first place. That’s not an easy thing. A better rail and bus system will help, but we also have to break through a lifetime of conditioning about cars being the best mode of transportation in all circumstances.
None of this will be easy. A lot of these fixes will cost money. But it’ll be worth it, believe me. A state that’s easy to get around using lots of different methods is a state that can attract business and keep talent. Transit must be a priority, and I hope the incoming administration is listening.
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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