February 5, 2006
By Neal Peirce and Curtis Johnson, Courant Staff Writers
Can all of New England thrive in the
new global economy, or does prosperity have to be limited to the
region's eastern corridor?
One finds a slowed economic pulse along
the Connecticut River Valley and all of western New England. Even
economic leaders in the region acknowledge it. And they regularly
sum it up in one word: "Bradley."
Is that fair? Even if the only thing "international" about
the Bradley International Airport is Canadian-provided propeller
service to Montreal (and vacation charters to Mexico), isn't it
true that the airport has close to 7 million passengers a year,
has added 21 nonstop flights since 2004, now offers low-cost Southwest
flights, is expanding its facilities and claims almost $4 billion
in regional economic impact?
The answer is yes. But the airport,
say its many critics, has been run in a narrow, bureaucratic way,
symbolized by the historic mindset of its owner/manager, the Connecticut
Department of Transportation. The DOT is said to have made so many
long-term concessions to owners of the airport's parking garages
(and now depends so heavily the revenue) that competitive new ideas
In the '90s, when proposals surfaced
for a light rail line from Hartford through Bloomfield to Bradley,
the DOT opposed the Griffin Line vigorously, claiming the towns
and the state couldn't afford to build and operate it.
The DOT has mollified its critics a
tad by approving low-cost preliminary design work on rail service
from New Haven to Springfield. With a Bradley extension, such service
could be a major catalyst. Across the world, quality rail connections
are today defining the growth potential of airports. Why else, for
example, does the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority appear
so anxious to take over and speed up rail service from Washington
and its suburbs to Dulles Airport? It's pure economics: building
a larger passenger base. Or as the airports director noted: "For
an airport to be successful in the long run, it needs to have multi-modal
access." It's no longer reasonable to expect "the only
access is by private automobile."
What of positioning Bradley for other
new market opportunities - developing major freight facilities or
nearby land for industrial parks, warehousing and specialized services,
and seeking to stimulate the facility's broader territory in the
way that airports like Dallas-Fort Worth have invigorated entire
It's been slow going, though some incremental
progress, reports Doug Fisher of Northeast Utilities. The airport
board finally agreed, for example, to post "Welcome to New
England" rather than "Welcome to Hartford" signs
in a new terminal.
Other consequences of a lethargic Bradley:
Firms such as United Technologies lack convenient nonstop international
service, and corporations quickly reject the idea of moving facilities
to the region. (The airport's former marketing director - the person
in charge of getting international connections for Bradley - couldn't
even board an airplane for marketing purposes, because of a state
travel freeze on its workers.)
So how does Bradley turn into a major
international airline, a symbol of Connecticut River Valley growth?
The idea we heard most frequently: Create a bi-state, Connecticut-Massachusetts
airport and development authority with more aggressive management,
freeing the region's prime growth asset from its parking-lot mentality.
With a expansion mindset, say the impatient
local observers, Bradley would be set for 21st-century growth that
neither ocean- and land-locked Logan nor the New York City-area
airports can easily handle. Most of Bradley's facilities (and long
runway) are more than adequate for continued domestic passenger
growth, and the location offers better landing weather than Boston
or New York - all that's really lacking would be a new international
terminal and customs facilities.
Who could make this happen? Best answer:
The governors of Connecticut and Massachusetts, acting together.
Cynics react instantly that this could never happen, that Connecticut
wouldn't share a property it now "owns" exclusively, and
Massachusetts would be paralyzed by Massport/Logan jealousy.
But imagine the opposite: two chief
executives, each providing some political cover for the other, recognizing
their states' economic interdependence, championing collaboration,
fostering a vision of a more vibrant Connecticut River Valley and
a second major international airport from which both states could
benefit immensely. Economic recruitment, new rail links, especially
a vision of a new New England that rises above normal parochial,
ZIP code politics. The package would represent a dramatic signal
to citizens and business markets alike.
At a minimum, the Bradley issue should
engender some vigorous debate. An alternative (or even extension)
of bi-state authority might be leasing the airport to an aggressive
private operator, and using part of the proceeds to finance new
rail and road connections. (The model: Chicago's $1.83 billion deal
to lease its 1950s-era toll-road Skyway to a Spanish-Australian
consortium.) A bi-state Bradley deal, including financing for modern,
connecting Connecticut River Valley train service, might even lead
to smart service splits - longer-distance flights from Bradley and
shorter ones from its new rival, the more regional Tweed Airport
at New Haven.
New England has long seemed insulated
from the collaborative spirit driving economic and growth deals
across the world. But once it breaks loose, it might really take
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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