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.

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