Here it is 2007, and the Harford metro area and Massachusetts's nearby Pioneer Valley still are fully dependent on automobile use, a pattern that has continued for decades since trolley lines were removed, commuter rail service was scrapped and bus service was marginalized.
This is a major reason why this area of more than 1.7 million is still decaying as a viable business, technology and cultural center. The latest sign of this autocentric decay came when MetLife confirmed in April that it was moving 1,300 jobs from downtown Hartford to Bloomfield, due in large part to lack of ample parking in the city.
This is a textbook example of why region must have a strong transit system and why the state's effort to bring back commuter rail service to the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line can't happen soon enough (it is scheduled for 2010).
But the trains are only part of the answer. To make the most of the investment, the region must bring people to the train service. We must expand stations, develop the areas around stations and link this development to the urban fabric in each city. There are still numerous gaps between tracks and town centers.
In New Haven, the new, centrally located State Street station is a good addition but only works as a secondary (and usually closed) platform for the city's larger Union Station a mile south of the downtown area.
In Meriden, there are plans to build up the area around the city's existing rail platform, but the concept encourages low density, almost suburban infill between Main Street and City Hall.
Springfield's massive yet mostly abandoned Union Station sits primarily within a suburban industrial park setting with a very unsafe passage linking the existing open station area with the downtown region south of the complex.
Finally, the largest gap along the line is Hartford's Union Station, which is centered between downtown Hartford, the campuses of Aetna and The Hartford and the State Capitol grounds. It has the capacity to bring in thousands of commuters into the city's large financial center. However, the station is not prepared to take this new service, nor are the parcels around the station being developed into transit-oriented design blocks that link the station with the $1.3 billion in downtown development. To put it another way, there is way too much surface parking around the station.
When it comes to strong examples of station work, the state can look at places such as Yonkers, N.Y., and Trenton, N.J., for inspiration. The Yonkers train station was renovated and the parcels around the facility were built up, spurring an additional $3 billion in development across the city. Trenton's train station is being renovated and expanded. It is already linked with the downtown region and sits next to the northern terminus of a light rail line.
Today, Union Station is Hartford's most underused asset. It's time to link it with the rest of downtown.
The second issue is connecting the rail service with all of the communities in the corridor. The line will of course pass through active town centers such as Wallingford and Windsor. But as presently conceived, it misses at least two places that would greatly benefit from a rail connection.
If the line were extended just a few miles north of Springfield, it would tap into the academic and industrial centers of Chicopee, Holyoke and Northampton; a region that forms the upper half of the Hartford-Springfield "Knowledge Corridor."
Within this region is an urban population of 250,000 with dense neighborhoods, beautiful industrial adaptive reuse potential and academic centers such as Smith, Mount Holyoke and Amherst colleges, as well as the University of Massachusetts.
In Holyoke, there is a massive new "green" industrial reuse project in the city's historic Canal District known as "Open Square" that uses local hydroelectric power. The mixed-use project is touted as the region's premier mixed-used center of art galleries, entrepreneur businesses and urban lofts, all of which sits right next door to the rail line, the city's abandoned H.H. Richardson train station and the rest of the district's beautiful untapped industrial architecture.
Northampton and Amherst are hip and bustling urban academic and retail centers, easily accessible from Hartford by rail. Yet, though discussions have begun, there are still no plans to bring commuter service back to those communities.
The other area in need of service is Bradley International Airport. The state Department of Transportation quashed a proposed link between Hartford and the airport along the "Griffin Line" a decade ago, in part because of the cost and challenge of adding new track from the Griffin office park in Bloomfield to the main Bradley terminal in Windsor Locks.
However, when the MBTA completes its Rhode Island commuter line extension from downtown Providence to T.F. Green Airport and rail links to the New York airports are finished, Bradley will be the last major airport From Boston to New Jersey in 2007 without a transit link.
The state has to link Hartford and Bradley. The advantage of the Griffin Line is that it would also connect Bloomfield center and the University of Hartford with downtown offices and amenities.
By dealing with these issues and creating a strong foundation for future transit service, the region will be poised to grow its economy and become a stronger link in the Northeast Corridor economy.
Nicholas Caruso is a designer at Centerbrook Architects and Planners in Essex and an incoming Yale Master of Architecture II degree candidate.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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