Railing Against Highways: Is Momentum Building For Expanded Rail, Bus Service?

Connecticut is a tale of two places when it comes to use of public transportation. There’s the Gold Coast and the Metro North line with hundreds of thousands of riderships on trains that need replacement and upgrade. Then there is the rest of us in central and eastern Connecticut with limited bus services and downtowns where the biggest retail businesses may be parking lots and garages. When he opened his restaurant a few years ago the late Hartford Mayor Mike Peters quipped that he could offer you a $7.50 hamburger but it would cost $10 or more for parking during your visit to Hartford’s central business district.

News stories this week suggest that the policy and plans on mass transit may be getting greener and less dependent on automobiles. A January 30th story by the Courant’s Don Stacom addressed the issue of a new approach and targeted use of federal stimulus money to push public modes of transit and reducing what the Al Gore crowd calls our “carbon footprint.”

The take away from the Hartford meetings attended by legislators and advocates was that it’s time to push a new agenda for the sake of the environment and for economic recovery built around new thinking on transportation. “With the federal stimulus plan moving quickly through Congress, leaders from a variety of alternative transportation fields agreed that they have a narrow window of time to influence how Connecticut uses its share of the money,” noted the news report.

On January 29th, the Courant’s Stacom reported on an even more tangible proposal to activate long dormant railroad tracks on the Waterbury to Hartford route, including stops in New Britain and neighboring towns.

Officials with Pan Am Railways told lawmakers that for $52 million, their company could bring the tracks on the Waterbury-to-Berlin stretch up to federal standards for passenger service and also build small stations in Bristol, Plainville and New Britain

The quick start up idea from Pan Am stands in stark contrast to the slow moving and increasingly costly busway plan first proposed in 1998. This plan would make downtown New Britain the terminal at the former Greenfield’s store site for a bus lane into Hartford aside tracks that are now used infrequently for freight.

State Senator Don DeFronzo (D-New Britain), along with colleagues Rep. Betty Boukus (D-Plainville) and David McCluskey (D-West Hartford) said the Legislature will examine these options toward mass transit closely in the first part of the current session. Joe Marie, the state’s new transportation commissioner, will be looking at this Waterbury to Hartford connector route that could be expanded and linked to local bus service if ridership demands increase. Marie will discover that old and steady habits die hard in Connecticut. But he is a departure from transportation commissioners of the past having come from Boston and the MBTA.

This may signal the end of the line for the New Britain-Hartford busway plan. From the start old transportation regimes said busway was preferable over rail because the ridership wouldn’t justify a rail passenger system. That limited vision seems to have doomed the once promising Griffin line (Hartford to the airport)in the 1980s and left the busway stalled and steeped in cost overruns.

If the Waterbury rail idea gets approval, New Britain’s downtown could benefit from being a stop on the line as much if not more than the busway. Transit-related plans for downtown economic development would stay on track, and residents could get an alternative to I-84 snarls and parking fees.

Hello Sweet Heart, Get Me Re-Write: Herald, Press Survive

The New Britain Herald and Bristol Press, left to die by the parent Journal Register Company (JRC) late in 2008, will survive.

Today’s Herald story by Scott Whipple confirmed that Michael Schroeder, a veteran newspaper exec from Newsday, has made good on his promise to be the white knight entrepreneur for the two local dailies and three weeklies in central Connecticut.

[Photo credit: Movie poster The Front Page (1974)]

Schroeder is the president, publisher and chief executive of the group [Central Connecticut Communications], and will manage all operations from the newspapers’ offices in New Britain and Bristol. The daily papers will continue to publish seven days a week, and the weeklies will appear Fridays.

“This has been an exciting process, getting to know the staff and the people around New Britain and Bristol,” Schroeder said. “We will be building on a great paper, with a team that is ready to move forward and not look back.”

Jeff Pijanowski, a longtime colleague of Schroeder at Newsday who now writes his own blog, leaves little doubt that the new publisher has journalism in his blood and may be in this for more than the money: “He’s one of the top journalists I have ever met. He brings a level of excitement in the newsroom few other executives can. He’s not afraid to take risks when necessary, he’ll roll up his sleeves with his staff, and he certainly can breathe life into a news organization that was close to shutting its doors.”
As doubtful as it appeared in our earlier posts here of November 27 and December 31, a best case scenario has emerged for the hometown dailies — a publisher committed to keeping two institutions of commerce and coverage alive and adaptable to new kinds of news delivery in print and on line.

This happy ending wouldn’t be complete without citing the alarm bells first raised by State Rep. Tim O’Brien (D-24) about the loss of the daily papers in central Connecticut. O’Brien, soon joined by other legislators and the mayors of New Britain and Bristol, wrote to the state Department of Economic Development (DECD) asking for its assistance in finding a buyer. Contrary to some misguided commentary that the lawmakers were looking for a bailout that would lead to government control of newsrooms, this was a case of elected leaders looking out for the well being of their communities and advocating for preservation of fourth estate that is indispensable in a democracy. It’s not clear whether the state DECD will be offering specific assistance to the local newspapers via small business loans or other incentives. But the enterprise should receive the same concern that any other business would in the effort to save jobs and promote commerce in the region.

The ruckus raised by O’Brien and other public officials was certainly loud enough to be heard by Schroeder, leading to this week’s improbable rebirth of the dailies.

A Good Bet: Amann Will Exit Gubernatorial Race Quickly

Former Speaker of the House Jim Amann is ramping up a run for Governor. He’s sent no less than five e-messages to Democratic leaders over the last month.

They reflect a hectic schedule and agenda: advocacy for more “Hollywood East” state tax credits (before the Democratic caucus even considers it), an invitation to his portrait unveiling, another invitation to a charity fundraiser and finally news of a January 29th announcement in Bridgeport when he will make his gubernatorial intentions known.

Now comes the news that Amann’s plate gets fuller with the appointment to be a senior advisor to the House Democratic leadership. It’s just too much and foretells that Amann’s gubernatorial run is likely to end very quickly after it leaves the dock.

Putting aside this highly problematic assignment for the moment, too many political factors mitigate against the ex-Speaker getting any traction in the race for Governor in 2010.

For one thing history is just not on Amann’s side. Ex-Speaker Ernest Abate, a downstate lawmaker from the 1980s, sought the Governorship without success. More recently, Senate Majority Leader George Jepson, a capable and effective legislative leader, did not survive the 2004 state convention and accepted the lieutenant governor nomination, earning creds for party service and a future run for statewide office. State lawmakers have fared much better moving up the political ladder by seeking a seat in Congress (a young John Rowland, Chris Murphy in 2006) or a constitutional office (Comptroller Nancy Wyman, Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, Attorney General Dick Blumenthal, all of whom came out of the Legislature).

Amann also lost considerable credibility in 2006 when he endorsed the independent run of Joe Lieberman for re-election after Ned Lamont became the Democratic nominee. The progressive faction of the party that lifted up Lamont cannot be easily dismissed in putting together a winning strategy for the nomination for Governor.

And finally Amann comes up against a deep and qualified bench among Democrats who would be Governor and have a measure of statewide exposure already. Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy has all but announced, having gained statewide experience and support in a 2006 bid that ultimately went to New Haven’s John DeStefano. Secretary Bysiewicz, respected for her campaign skills and reaping kudos for the Democratic surge in enrollment last year, may be looking again toward the corner office. There’s also Comptroller Wyman whose frequent and depressing pronouncements on the deficit give her creds as a knowledegeable office holder on the budget for very tough fiscal times. And have I mentioned Dick Blumenthal? All of the above except Amann would step aside for him in the unlikely event that he gets a case of gubernatorial fever. Don’t count on it.

To his credit the affable Amann rose to become Speaker among the sometimes discordant factions of a growing Democratic Caucus during an 18-year legislative career. His story of overcoming a serious illness is a compelling and inspiring one. He’s a hard guy not to like.

But the ex-Speaker is not coming from a position that elevates his prospects based on history and the political realities within the Democratic Party. His new policy role in the employ of House Democrats cannot possibly help his ambitions either. If there is one thing they teach at campaign school: you need to be fully committed to run for the better part of two years.

It’s a good bet that he will be the earliest to leave the gubernatorial race even before the aforementioned others enter it

Commuter Question: Rail Over Busway

Today’s Courant story by Don Stacom reports on a brewing change in legislative thinking on public transit in the area led by State Rep. David McCluskey of West Hartford.

McCluskey, disturbed over the lack of progress by the Department of Transportation on the New Britain busway, recently called for dumping the New Britain/Hartford busway as too limited for emerging needs. This would sink New Britain’s terminal station planned for the former Greenfield’s property and force a change in thinking for downtown development.

From Don Stacom’s story:

“The busway was supposed to be a way to keep from building another lane on I-84, but I don’t have much faith that people are going to drive into New Britain to take a bus to Hartford,” McCluskey said. “But would people in Bristol and Plainville and New Britain use a train to Hartford? And would people in West Hartford welcome a way to get to New York? I think so.”

With last summer’s gas prices a harbinger of things to come and a surge in demand for rail service (even in Connecticut), McCluskey has a point. Investment in rail on existing tracks may be where we should have started 10 years ago. It’s another indication that Connecticut has had more of a highway department than a true Department of Transportation through the years.

Related: Rep. McCluskey’s blog frequently reports on transit conferences and meetings at http://ctprogressivedemocrat.blogspot.com/

Push To Save Herald, Press Sparks Debate In National Media

The push by local legislators, as mentioned in November 28’s post, to involve the Department of Economic Development (DECD) in efforts to save The Herald of New Britain and the Bristol Press is drawing national media attention.

A Reuters story posted at The Huffington Post focuses on questions of a free press and the potential conflicts that would arise if newspapers got government “bailouts” or other forms of assistance.

The coverage is being driven by a mistaken notion advanced in some reports (including those by Courant columnists Stan Simpson and Kevin Rennie) that the proposal would give the newspapers a handout or “bailout” in the face of falling revenues and readership.

That wasn’t the case at all when State Rep. Tim O’Brien (D-24) first asked economic development officials to lend a hand in finding a buyer or potential investors to replace the absentee and failed ownership of The Journal Register Company. The state DECD Commissioner, Joan McDonald, said as much in noting that the push by local elected officials has drawn up to five potential buyers who would take advantage of incentives that her department could provide.

In the Reuters analysis, writer Robert MacMillan notes that legislators, who this week were joined by the Mayors of New Britain and Bristol, sought state intervention to find a way to save these hometown dailies, both of which have a long tradition as the local commercial dailies in once thriving factory towns.

MacMillan, quoting journalism professors and experts, frames the issue in terms of the conflicts that would ensue with state assistance for a newspaper:

To some experts, that sounds like a bailout, a word that resurfaced this year after the U.S. government agreed to give hundreds of billions of dollars to the automobile and financial sectors.

Relying on government help raises ethical questions for the press, whose traditional role has been to operate free from government influence as it tries to hold politicians accountable to the people who elected them. Even some publishers desperate for help are wary of this route.

Providing government support can muddy that mission, said Paul Janensch, a journalism professor at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, and a former reporter and editor.

The Reuters story correctly points out that the separation of the press and government is just as important in a democracy as the separation of church and state.

That separation, however, would not be jeopardized at all if a buyer is found for the Herald or Press, or both, and the newspapers survive via the public sector incentives that DECD would provide.

Whether DECD incentives were part of the sale or not, the assumption that newsrooms would be compromised in New Britain and Bristol is based on unfounded speculation by those journalists and academics who are calling these efforts by DECD a “bailout.”

With the Herald due to close January 12th, it is the longest of long shots to assume a deal will come together in time to save it. Some other form or forms of journalism need to emerge to keep the fourth estate alive locally. The best scenario is that a community newspaper (using both print and the internet) be locally owned and self-sustaining, not another absentee owner seeking to plunder these local papers as the Journal Register company has done.