When Connecticut was at its economic zenith, we had diverse, interesting, densely populated cities served by roads and trains. After decades of poorly planned suburban sprawl, most policy makers are willing to concede that the original settlement pattern had something to recommend it.
Cities and towns with healthy and robust population density tend to be interesting places, where entrepreneurs hatch business plans and artists and young people want to gather. Add transit and you get less pollution and energy use, and a lower cost of transportation -- you don't need to drive as much.
This is the thinking that supports transit-oriented development, or TOD, generally defined as development within a half-mile of a transit station or stop. The idea has broad support. There was great interest when the state made $5 million in TOD challenge grants available last year.
HOMES NEAR TRANSIT
There've been some major transit-oriented projects in recent years, such as the Harbor Point development in Stamford and the 360 State Street high-rise in New Haven. But these are local initiatives. There is no systematic, statewide process for development around transit stations and corridors.
How to do it was the subject of a recent forum in Hartford titled "Growing Connecticut Around Transit." With the state making a massive investment in the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield rail line and the New Britain-Hartford busway, the timing is propitious.
Connecticut is not starting from scratch; some pieces of the puzzle are in place. The state's Conservation and Development Policies Plan for 2013-18, now in the final stages of preparation, could be a vital tool for TOD. Not only does it encourage smart growth, it will present "priority funding areas" for state investment, which should be areas near transit.
The HomeConnecticut program encourages affordable housing in town centers. Brownfield restoration projects are now being encouraged near transit. State Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker, who worked on New Jersey's successful "transit village" initiative of residential development near transit hubs, has committed his department to TOD. Many municipalities want to move ahead.
Now comes the hard part -- developing the capacity to execute TOD. Making it happen, in the 169-town fiefdom culture of Connecticut. Two points emerged from the symposium that should guide the state's thinking.
TOWNS MUST BUY IN
The first is that towns must be involved. This is the land where home rule rules, where all politics really is local. Thus there has to be input, buy-in and land-use approval from the towns.
Second, the buck has to stop somewhere. Someone has to be in charge and have enough authority to make it happen. There are a number of ways to proceed.
The state might take a page from Mitt Romney, who as governor of Massachusetts created a super-agency, the Office of Commonwealth Development, to oversee and coordinate the departments of environmental protection, housing and community development, transportation and energy. Mr. Romney appointed Douglas Foy, an environmentalist, to direct the agency. Among many accomplishments was a $30 million investment in TOD.
Or Connecticut could create a transit authority, in or out of DOT, with the ability to issue bonds, assemble real estate and offer technical assistance to willing towns to create development near transit.
Another possibility would be to empower regional planning organizations. This has the advantage of local input. The potential disadvantage is that there are 15 of these agencies, some representing only a handful of towns. Unless the state were to reduce the number of planning organizations, which would make sense, few besides the Capitol Region Council of Governments would appear to have the capacity to do the work.
Connecticut cannot keep plowing under its diminishing supply of open space, nor can it jam many more cars onto its congested highways. However assembled, transit-oriented development has to be a big part of the state's future.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at