Now that the Connecticut Convention Center is open, the scramble
is on to connect the new building to downtown and to figure out
how to get conventioneers to local restaurants, neighborhood attractions
and Bradley Airport.
Despite the millions of dollars of transportation funds spent to
bring the I-91 exits up to presumed capacity, we don't really know
how much gridlock will ensue when a really big convention comes to
There's an unfortunate irony to all of this. How many of these issues
could have been avoided by building the Union Station-to-Bradley
Airport light rail system that was proposed not so long ago for
the old Griffin rail line? Probably most of them.
The Griffin Line, again ironically, was killed the very same year
that Adriaen's Landing was proposed for the Phoenix-owned riverfront
property, the very same year that Gov. John Rowland stepped in to
cut a deal with the New England Patriots by promising a new stadium
for them at the same location. That year was 1998.
The Griffin light rail line was the brainchild of Paul Ehrhardt,
a 17-year member of the Greater Hartford Transit District and its
chairman from 1988 to 1998. Ehrhardt was an investment manager who
worked first for CIGNA and later for Aetna. A pinstriped Republican
and a stalwart of the Greater Hartford Chamber of Commerce, he was
also Simsbury's representative to the Capitol Region Council of Governments'
Transportation Committee, which plays an important role in distributing
federal transportation funds.
A warm, likable person, he was comfortably wired into the Hartford
business establishment. In addition to his impeccable business credentials,
Ehrhardt was also, perhaps surprisingly, a visionary and an activist:
His cause was mass transit. A veteran of the Nixon administration's
Urban Mass Transit Administration, he understood transit and knew
what an essential role it plays in downtown revitalization.
He helped pioneer the Washington, D.C., Metro in the 1970s, and
was familiar with the utterly arcane federal transportation funding
process. He was a tireless advocate who carried his drawings, statistics,
slides and case studies from meeting to meeting to meeting, making
the case in polite but compelling terms to anyone who would listen.
As chairman of the transit district, Ehrhardt had a bully pulpit
from which to educate the city, the region, and the business community
about the potential of the Griffin Line for transit-oriented development.
The Griffin Line was envisioned to serve the northeast quarter of
the Capitol Region, which had poor interstate highway access. It
was a natural location for a transit line, with an underused right
of way that was already owned by the state Department of Transportation.
Ehrhardt led broad consensus-building exercises throughout the host
communities; the town of Bloomfield completely rezoned its town center
to accommodate the higher densities of transit-oriented development.
The Hartford city council enthusiastically endorsed the plan. The
neighborhoods of northwest Hartford were on board as well.
Ehrhardt almost succeeded. If he had succeeded, the Griffin Line
would be operational today - right now - for the opening of the convention
How could a project that should have been a slam-dunk, after 10
years of planning, die a sudden death? While the DOT was the actual
executioner through the blunt instrument of threatening to withhold
transportation funds from the entire Capitol Region, the DOT was
merely the front man. Petty and power politics among Hartford's own
politicians, a short-sighted business community, an opposed highway
lobby, an indifferent governor, and a failure of leadership and vision
among them all were the actual cause of death. But that is an autopsy
for another day.
It's a shame, nonetheless, because
Ehrhardt had a larger vision, which he and many others thought
would fall into place once the Griffin Line was up and operating,
and its benefits became self-evident. I once asked him what would
come next. He visualized the continuation of the light rail line
on the streets, from Union Station east on Asylum Street (which
would become a transit and pedestrian mall); the next stop would
read "Civic Center" and the one after
that "Old State House." He envisioned the train crossing
Main Street and running right down State Street to the intersection
with Columbus Boulevard, where the signs today could read, "Riverfront
Plaza," "Phoenix," "Marriott Hotel" and "Connecticut
Then it would cross the Connecticut
River on the Founders' Bridge, then being widened to include a
high occupancy vehicle lane. And how would the signs read after
that? Why not "Founders Plaza," "Downtown
East Hartford," "Pratt and Whitney," "Rentschler
Field," "UTC Science Park," "Main Street Manchester," "Mansfield
Depot," "University of Connecticut," "Willimantic?" And
even beyond: "Mohegan Sun," "Foxwoods," "Norwich" and "New
But to some in Hartford's culture of low expectations and desperate
need for the quick fix, such a grand vision seemed absurd, impossibly
overreaching, and unbearably long-term. Ehrhardt knew that, and for
that reason, didn't talk much about the bigger vision. Does it seem
absurd, overreaching, and long-term now, as the same transit district
tries to solve the problem of airport-to-convention center travelers?
The planning and design work for the Griffin Line still exists;
it is only seven years old. The last generation of leaders - the
ones with a stake in proving it couldn't work - have passed from
the scene. Why not pick up those plans and consider the Griffin Line
again? The project is so much more compelling than the tepid busways
on which we have spent so much time, money and civic energy over
the past five years - but with none of the excitement and commitment
that marked the planning for the Griffin Line - as the National Transit
Administration discerned when it recently refused the next round
of busway funding.
Paul Ehrhardt would roll over in his grave - if he were in his grave
- but actually he's in the United Kingdom. He is managing director
at Citigroup Asset Management in London. He has disposed of his automobiles,
and now uses London`s excellent rail and bus services to meet all
of his transportation needs.
Toni Gold of Hartford is a senior associate with Project for Public
Spaces and president of Urban Edge Associates. She serves on the
board of All Aboard!, a regional transit-advocacy organization, and
is a member of the Place board of contributors.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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