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Rell Seeks Transportation Boost

Plan Would Add Train Stations For Commuter Service, Revive Long-Stalled Busway Plan

January 25, 2006
By CHRISTOPHER KEATING, Capitol Bureau Chief

Coming on the heels of last year's $1.3 billion transportation plan, Gov. M. Jodi Rell is calling for spending at least another $600 million over the next 10 years in phase two of the program.

The plan calls for opening new train stations in Enfield, Newington and North Haven as part of a proposed 11-station commuter rail service from New Haven to Springfield, with eight trains running daily each way. Amtrak currently runs along the tracks, but the new commuter service would have more stops.

Rell also wants to revive the long-stalled, $336 million New Britain-to-Hartford busway, a 9.4-mile route with 12 stops that would end at Union Station in Hartford. That project was included in the federal transportation bill signed by President George W. Bush in August, but it still requires approval by a federal transportation agency in a ruling that could come late next month. The agency had placed the project on its "not recommended" list last year, but state officials believe they have completed the necessary design and planning work during the past year to reverse the previous ruling.

While applauding aspects of Rell's plan, House Speaker James Amann said it does not go far enough. The state, he said, needs to spend at least an additional $1.5 billion to combat the longstanding problems of traffic gridlock and bottlenecks.

"I think that is the minimum," Amann said Tuesday night. "We need to do a lot more than the nickel-and-dime way we've been doing it over the past decade. We need to do something serious."

The state needs to be bold, Amann said, in the tradition of Democratic Gov. William A. O'Neill, whose $1 billion transportation plan after the collapse of the Mianus River Bridge in Greenwich in 1983 would be the equivalent of spending about $6 billion today. Rell's proposal for $1.3 billion last year "wasn't really a bold or creative initiative," Amann said.

Some state and local officials have been clamoring for the New Haven-to-Springfield commuter line for years, but the plans have been studied and then stalled.

"It's extremely expensive," said Sen. Biagio "Billy" Ciotto, a Democrat, and the co-chairman of the legislature's transportation committee. "It's never happened because of the cost - money. It's not a new idea."

The Rell administration has not briefed Ciotto and other top Democrats on the proposal. Rell spokesman Judd Everhart said Tuesday that no further details about the costs would be released until Rell's budget address to the legislature on Feb. 8. The plan requires selling bonds, and the interest on the bonds would be included in the final costs.

Some lawmakers believe Rell has a better chance of gaining approval because all 187 legislators are up for re-election this fall, and they want to be seen as solving problems. Ciotto said he favors the broad outlines of Rell's proposal and predicted the ideas would be supported by some legislators in the same way that they voted last year for Rell's $1.3 billion first-phase plan.

"She appears to be going in the right direction," Ciotto said.

Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams, the highest-ranking senator, said he supports the commuter rail line, adding that the Hartford-to-New Haven section is the most important portion for commuters heading to their jobs. The Senate Democratic caucus, which holds a 24-12 advantage over the Republicans, is particularly interested in trying to improve transportation in order to create jobs, he said.

Concerning the New Britain busway, Williams said, "It's something we should look at, but it's not going to solve all the problems."

Like Ciotto, Williams said he had not received any briefing or documentation from the Rell administration for a plan that will need legislative approval.

"I haven't seen anything," Williams said Tuesday. "We'd all love to have some additional detail."

The plan would be funded with money from the petroleum gross receipts tax. The tax is derived mainly from gasoline sales but also is collected on other petroleum products. The tax is currently 5.8 percent, and is scheduled to increase to 6.3 percent on July 1.

Deputy Senate Republican leader John McKinney said he did not have concerns about paying for the program because the public is keenly aware of the problems, and businesses have been complaining for years about transportation bottlenecks. He noted that Rell had used her political capital to help pass the first phase in the legislature, and he sees that happening again.

"I think the fear was, in an election year, if people were going to be worried about spending this kind of money or committing these kind of resources," McKinney said Tuesday. "I think the debate has shifted, where people know that we need to make these improvements in our transportation system."

Last year's initiative covered improvements on highways around the state, but the bulk of the money was targeted at improving the Metro-North commuter rail line in an effort to help Fairfield County. More than $650 million was earmarked for 342 new rail cars, and another $300 million was earmarked for a rail maintenance facility in New Haven.

This year, Rell's plan focuses on bus and commuter-train improvements in central Connecticut.

"Currently, we have a natural job development corridor - New Haven to Hartford to the Massachusetts border - with no commuter-friendly rail service," Rell said. "And we have a major airport with no bus or rail link. These are serious economic drawbacks, and it is time to address them head-on."

As a result, Rell is calling for a bus line to connect the Windsor Locks train station with Bradley International Airport. She also intends to rehabilitate nearly 40 rail cars on the Metro-North line.

Everhart declined to disclose any details, such as the price for a ticket from New Haven to Springfield or the number of potential riders. A state Department of Transportation study in late 2004, however, projected 2,400 riders per day and a $9.50 one-way ticket from New Haven to Springfield. The study said that projected passenger fares would generate only 12 percent of the operating costs, requiring the state to contribute an annual subsidy of $8.8 million or more than $14 per ride.

The 62-mile line would cut through 17 towns in two states, adding new stations to the current Amtrak stops in New Haven, Wallingford, Meriden, Berlin, Hartford, Windsor, Windsor Locks and Springfield.

Christopher Cooper, a spokesman for the state DOT, said state officials have been working on the design for the New Britain busway since the project received a "not recommended" designation in February 2005 from the Federal Transit Administration.

"They didn't block it based on the concept or the merits, but that it wasn't far enough along in the planning stages," Cooper said. "We fully expect it to go forward."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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