I knew we might have a different sort of transportation commissioner on our hands when I bumped into Joseph Marie in the fleece aisle at REI.
Then, a few days later, I heard him tell legislators more than just the usual about fixing highways and bridges. He offered a vision of trains, roads that are friendly to bikers and pedestrians and improved mass transit in Connecticut, linked to the rest of New England.
This from a working class guy from Boston who grew up catching buses and trains and started his career at the MBTA.
A few days later when we met at 6:30 one morning at Starbucks to talk about trains, I was stunned by Marie's enthusiasm for his job and the opportunity he holds in his chilly hands.
In the middle of all this grim news and depressingly uninspiring state government, we've got a new commissioner with a creative vision for the future. This isn't someone who dreams of more pavement, but a guy who realizes that to survive economically we must have roads and trains.
Give Gov. Rell some credit here: Last summer she hired a man whose entire career is about building up commuter rail. Marie tells me there's no better moment — and no better place — for a mass transit guy than in Connecticut.
We sip our coffee and Marie is off like a locomotive, telling me about regional train lines one day linking Hartford and Springfield and up to Vermont and down to New Jersey, about commuter rail through New London and into Rhode Island. He tells me that he built light-rail lines in Minneapolis and Phoenix and how he sought out the Connecticut job because of the opportunity here.
I'm the native who thinks this is the place good ideas go to die. It's 5 degrees and 6:45 in the morning and this guy is telling me we are on the verge of something huge.
"If we don't have this conversation now, when are we going to have it?" said Marie, who is 45, married and a father of three. "We have a great opportunity. This is the best time."
Marie told me that he took over a department that wasn't in the habit of asking itself "why do we do it that way?"
"It's an organization that was built on a highway culture," Marie said, reminding me that roads (like rail) are also heavily government-subsidized. He told me how his department will soon be presenting options for a much-discussed commuter rail line between New Haven, Hartford and Springfield.
He's realigning the department for the future. He's bringing in hands-on mass transit professionals — James Redecker from New Jersey Transit and Jeffrey Parker from Atlanta's MARTA system. Although cutting a deal with Amtrak to run a few commuter trains along the existing tracks between Hartford and New Haven might be a good idea, Marie said that a half-baked effort could be worse than nothing.
Enthusiasm only goes so far. One-quarter of our highway bridges are "functionally obsolete." The new rail yard in New Haven will cost millions more than anticipated. Expansion of the Shore Line East, which runs east of New Haven, will not happen as fast as some would like. Amtrak, which controls the tracks in much of the state, can be a difficult partner. The Metro-North line is overcrowded and desperate for the new train cars that will start arriving later this year.
Meanwhile, to create an entirely new commuter rail line in the Connecticut River Valley, there must be the political support for a costly project. "If we fail to deliver, it is going to further erode our credibility," Marie said. "Could we do it before 2015? There's a potential."
"We've got to do it right. We have to recognize that the right-of-way is owned by Amtrak. We have to reconnect all of that with the financial picture of the state and where it is most prudent to make that investment."
We're aren't going to become Portland or Minneapolis. But, like Marie said, we've got something here.
"In the business of transportation in this country," he said, "the commissioner of the Department of Transportation in Connecticut might be one of the best jobs to get."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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