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Transit: Connect The Dots

April 23, 2006
Commentary By TONI GOLD

All three of the transportation bills now in the General Assembly seek to fund the same transit projects, whether more rail cars for Metro-North or more funds for the Hartford-New Britain busway. In fact, transit is the largest area of overlap in the bills, and that's an encouraging sign. But is that enough? How about making public transit not only the lead transportation program in the coming years, but the lead economic development strategy as well?

Sure, these projects have been standing in line for years. They respond to real needs. But each was planned for only one region's needs, and they are not connected to any statewide objectives.

What if we thought about transit as a statewide system, just like we do roads?

If we go up to 30,000 feet and look down at Connecticut, what do we see? First, we see that Connecticut is a little more than twice the size of the Denver metro area. However, it is much more fine-grained and textured. That's because our entire state was almost fully developed 200 years before Denver existed, and long before the automobile.

It was developed at a scale comfortable for people and horses, which gives it, like all of New England, its characteristic walkability, its church spires and monumental mill buildings, its large old street trees - a built environment with an overall character and sense of place that Denver could only wish for.

New Urbanists strive to create these same qualities from scratch in open fields - including in Denver, where the former Stapleton Airport property is now a sparkling, walkable, New Urbanist place - but without the patina of meaning that comes only with time.

The second thing we notice about Connecticut from 30,000 feet is a radiating network of old rights-of-way, some still in use by passenger or freight trains, some turned to trails and greenways, and many abandoned. The state is probably not as well-connected today as it was in 1925, when trolleys used a city-to-city network to bypass muddy, unpaved roads. It's not that we don't have good roads now, but we have only roads, and the ones we need to use most often are gridlocked.

The Denver region decided just over a year ago to commit to a regional transit system that would span an area stretching from New Haven to Springfield and from Montville to Waterbury.

The new FasTracks system is under construction, building on a few pieces of successful light rail and bus lines. FasTracks will serve eight counties and 38 municipalities; 2,410 square miles and 2.5 million people. It will include 119 miles of new and expanded rail transit in nine corridors, eight miles of bus rapid transit, an enhanced bus network, and 65 new park and ride lots.

What Denver had in mind was to connect the region into an economic entity, and at the same time use the transit system to lead smarter land use and economic development. Could we do the same thing?

In some ways, it might even be easier here: Connecticut's old inter-urban rail network is still owned mainly by the state. Could these corridors form a transit system for blue-collar workers to commute daily from Enfield to Stamford, or gamblers to get from Fairfield County to the casinos without having to change trains, or business executives to get from New London to Waterbury and back without taking a whole day?

Could state legislators spend travel time between Fairfield County and the Capitol reading legislation instead of raising their stress levels on I-95?

It's sure worth a serious look. A big transit vision solves several problems - not immediately, but together and over time. They include the scourge of automobile dependency, congestion and pollution, the shortage of affordable housing, the disappearance of open space, worsening air pollution, the epidemic of obesity, the lack of housing for the elderly to age in place, and loss of community.

I don't mean to suggest that nirvana will follow as soon as we adopt such a policy. But just slowing current trends will have dramatic effects.

And here's another virtue of a big vision: It can stir our souls. Without a clear map of where we're going, without benefits for every region and town, how will politicians, not to mention voters, support such an expensive undertaking?

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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