Connecticut Must Get Commuter Rail Service On Track
December 19, 2008
Things do take time, but how can it be that there's no way to bring commuter train service to Hartford before 2015?
We've got the tracks that trains already run on. There still are railroad stations along the 62 miles between Springfield and New Haven. We've got an incoming president ready to fund New Deal-style public works projects like this.
The age-old Connecticut answer is, of course, let's study this sucker until it fades away.
The state Department of Transportation is telling citizen meetings around the state that we'll be far into the second term of an Obama administration before anyone can think about catching a MetroNorth out of Hartford. Hopefully, there will still be a workforce then that wants to ride a train to work.
Somehow, I don't see this happening in places where there is a vision for the future. These days, passengers even have trouble catching an actual train out of New Haven to Hartford. Due to track repairs, a bus has replaced the train for the last two weeks.
I'm sure there must be dozens of practical reasons — valid engineering and bureaucratic arguments — why commuter train service isn't possible for years.
But it's just not acceptable.
The governor has been talking about "shovel ready" public works projects that are primed to go if Congress and not-soon-enough President Obama approve a major stimulus package. Could there be a more important, transformative project than reviving a commuter railroad between Hartford, New Haven and Springfield?
"The idea that this thing can't be done until 2015 is certainly staggering. This is hardly a new project," said Oz Griebel, president of the MetroHartford Alliance, a business group.
The slow pace is not merely staggering. If Connecticut doesn't start making itself more competitive we are not going to have the workers to pay taxes to fund all these nice little towns, each with its own school system, police force and highway department.
State Rep. David McCluskey, a West Hartford Democrat, said he is so fed up that he wants to abandon the plan for the already outdated (and also long-studied) "busway" that would link Hartford and New Britain, in favor of the commuter rail line.
"I'm not sure the DOT knows what they are doing in terms of public transportation," he said.
McCluskey and other top Democrats, including Speaker of the House James Amann, his successor, Chris Donovan, and Senate President Pro Tem Don Williams, have been urging Gov. Rell to speed up the commuter line with the hope of getting some of that once-in-a-lifetime federal stimulus money.
"You need to make transit a priority right now. That may mean speeding up projects," said Kate Slevin, who directs the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a rail advocacy group. "You are lucky to have a rail line that can be expanded."
Transportation Commissioner Joseph Marie, hired earlier this year in part because of his experience with commuter rail, told me the rail line needs "a major upgrade."
"It's going to take some time. Is 2015 the right number? I'm not sure. We could probably do it faster than that," he said. "It has been a little slow going."
Marie said the obstacles are significant, like the fact that Amtrak owns the rail line, that new tracks would eventually have to be installed, and various environmental impacts must be assessed. There are other costly decisions to discuss, too, like how often the trains should run.
He declined to talk about the cost. Previous estimates have run around $300 million, a figure that has likely grown larger.
"We are right now working really hard at DOT trying to figure out ways to do it faster," Marie said. "I know the governor is committed to getting this service up and going."
That's good news. Now speed up.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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