Reliable, Affordable, Interconnected System Needed
By DONALD J. DEFRONZO
June 28, 2009
Connecticut has undergone a sea change from its past highway-centered transportation policy. The General Assembly and Gov. M. Jodi Rell have made mass transit a state priority, and the Obama Administration has focused interest and resources on the development of transit systems, bringing renewed emphasis to investment in mass transit in our state.
Last summer, as gas prices topped $4 a gallon, ridership on virtually every transit system rose — triggering requests for added bus service, additional routes on fixed rail lines and expanded express commuter bus service. Moving forward, Connecticut needs to carefully assess its transportation investments. Our priorities need to represent a commitment to a reliable, affordable, interconnected and customer-friendly system that is geographically balanced.
There are five key components to the future of mass transit in Connecticut.
•Our commitment to making Metro-North a top-flight commuter system is well underway and involves an investment of about $2 billion for the acquisition of new equipment, reconstruction of the New Haven Rail Maintenance Facility, expanded parking accommodations and renovations to stations along the line. These improvements include long overdue upgrades to stations and communication and signal systems on the branch lines in Danbury, Redding, Bethel and Norwalk.
•Eastern Connecticut has effectively asserted an interest in the expansion of rail service on Shore Line East from New London to New Haven and has justified its worth with double-digit ridership growth. Additional service is planned through 2010 and beyond with an initial $100 million slated for station improvements, and expanded parking facilities in Branford, Clinton, Guilford, Madison and Westbrook. Expanded service to New London is critical to allow this service to connect to tourist destinations in eastern Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Continued development of this rail line will mean less traffic on I-95 and greater economic development in towns along the route.
•Thought to be just a concept only two years ago, the proposal to upgrade the New Haven-to-Springfield rail line has gained momentum. Amtrak now appears amenable to the plan, and federal funds might become available to expedite the project as part of a northeast rail corridor. The project — which calls for double tracking of a major portion of the route, station renovations, signal enhancements and additional parking — could put all of central Connecticut within reasonable commuting time of New York City. This has spurred interest in a modern rail link to New Britain and Bristol and development of a multimodal transportation center in Waterbury.
•As we look at the future of rail in Connecticut, we need also look at our several underused rail freight lines and the potential each has to take trucks off the highways and efficiently move materials and products throughout the state. In some cases, these systems might also be adopted for local commuter services, as is being studied in the New Britain-to-Waterbury rail corridor. These are existing assets with great potential, some of which are already under stimulus funding consideration.
•Finally, an essential but often overlooked component of the state's public transportation system is our transit bus network. This provides affordable transportation for low-income wage earners, shoppers and the socially isolated. Business leaders have clearly identified access to mass transit as critical to growth and prosperity in Connecticut. Transit buses already account for millions of rides annually, and hundreds of thousands of new rides are a real possibility. Providing reliable and affordable bus transportation needs to be an important state mass transit goal. The proposed New Britain-Hartford busway might be one part of such a system.
While $70 million in federal stimulus funding has been allocated for the purchase of 106 new hybrid buses to replace the existing transit fleet, we need to make services more convenient for commuters, extend service hours and ensure services are better coordinated with rail and other transportation schedules.
The development of each of these five components is fundamentally important to Connecticut's transit system. With the federal government now promoting mass transit, Connecticut must move aggressively to secure support and funding for these important projects. Connecticut has a once-in-a-generation opportunity of which we must take advantage. We have laid the foundation for transformative change in transportation policy. Now we must act.
•Donald J. DeFronzo, D-New Britain, is co-chairman of the General Assembly's transportation committee and assistant president pro tempore of the Senate.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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