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Transit Plan Holds Key To Prosperity

April 3, 2005

When Gov. M. Jodi Rell announced bold steps last month to increase funding for transportation, well-deserved applause sprouted throughout the state. Connecticut residents finally have reason to hope that longstanding transportation headaches will finally be fixed. Moreover, it will help Connecticut rejoin the rest of the region in robust economic growth.

To understand what an upgraded transportation network can do for a state's economy, look at New Jersey, nestled on the other side of New York City from Connecticut. New Jersey, whose population grew 9 percent in the 1990s compared with Connecticut's 3 percent growth, has made appropriate investments in transit. Thanks to direct links to Manhattan, as well as improved intrastate service, employment increased in northern New Jersey by nearly 10 percent, while Connecticut's total employment grew by less than 5 percent. Additionally, residential property values have increased significantly near transit stops in northern New Jersey.

For Connecticut to compete, affordable housing must become more accessible to workers. For that to occur, transit must become more reliable and more accessible, making the ride to work faster in general. Only 4 percent of Connecticut workers take public transit to work, compared with 10 percent in New Jersey and 24 percent in New York. As I-95 and I-91 become more and more crowded, public transit can become an appealing option for workers. Rell's proposal addresses both of these issues, through the purchase of 342 new rail cars and the construction of a new rail maintenance facility, besides making improvements to I-95 and other highways.

The connection between reliable transit and a viable state economy was well made in the Connecticut Regional Institute for the 21st Century report in 1999 by Michael Gallis, who wrote: "There is very little inter-city transit within Connecticut. As congestion increases in this corridor ... [the transportation system] will not offer the level of access to the economic activities and hubs necessary to support Connecticut's institutions."

With the General Assembly's transportation committee having moved the governor's proposal along to the finance committee, it's time to examine the various fiscal elements of the plan. More funding above Rell's proposed gas tax increase will ultimately be needed, possibly a slightly higher gas tax or a small increase in the sales tax or personal income tax. These options would only be effective, however, if they are protected in a fiscal "lock box." This is the only appropriate way to assure the public that these funds will be used for transportation purposes only. Additionally, with technology allowing high-speed electronic tolling, tolls should be on the table.

The legislature should also consider moving forward with environmental reviews of the proposed New Haven-Hartford-Springfield rail line and the innovative New Britain-Hartford busway. If built, these projects would place more people on public transit along the I-91 corridor and the I-84 corridor west of Hartford.

Again, Rell deserves strong plaudits for her proposal, recognizing that the state's economy must rely on a multi-modal transit system. And the transportation committee's action deserves the same acclaim. Now the other appropriate committees and the full legislature must build on them as the legislative session moves on this spring. As important as these fixes are to remove each day's commuting annoyances, they are even more crucial in keeping Connecticut competitive with its rapidly growing regional neighbors.

John Atkin is vice president and Connecticut director of the Regional Plan Association.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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