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Rocky Road To Transit-Oriented Development

February 4, 2007
Commentary By TOM CONDON

Each summer when I was a lad in New London, there was a glorious and usually sweltering day when a mob of kids would walk down State Street to the train station with an appropriate cadre of adults, get on a New Haven Railroad passenger train, go to Boston, sit in the bleachers at Fenway Park, consume ridiculous amounts of soda, and cheer for the regal Ted Williams and his mostly forgettable mates.

It was called the Knothole Gang and was great fun. The point of relevance for today is that all the kids in my neighborhood went to Boston and back without ever getting in a car.

After a half-century of progress, this has become almost impossible (even if tickets were available). There aren't nearly as many trains as there were, and nowhere near as many people living within walking distance of stations.

It's finally occurring to people that perhaps we had it right the first time.

Or so I gathered from a conference on Monday at Central Connecticut State University on what is called, for lack of an elegant name, transit-oriented development.

The first time, as state Senate President Pro Tem Don Williams (no relation to the Splendid Splinter) pointed out, went back thousands of years. Since time out of mind, cities were tethered to fixed-path transportation, whether port, river or, later, rail. It was only in the postwar period, with the advent of cheap cars, cheap gas and incessant public road-building, that huge numbers of people could move out of cities.

"We did it because we could," Williams said.

While we still can, for a time at least, it's becoming clear that we shouldn't. Sprawl development is causing all kinds of esthetic, environmental and social problems and wasting vast amounts of fossil fuels. "We need to go back to the future," said Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Gina McCarthy.

I watched President Bush's State of the Union address, and I certainly hope we can lessen our pathetic dependence on foreign oil by running cars on corn, weeds, coffee grounds or whatever. I also hope they'll make cottage cheese taste like ice cream. But in neither case do I think it's wise to count on it.

The better move on foreign oil is to use less of it. There are a host of issues around corn-based ethanol, et al. At the risk of offending Archer, Daniels or Midland, our emphasis ought not to be as much on what is in the tank as fewer tanks (and better mileage standards). Communities where more people walk to the station and take the bus or train would be the idea.

CCSU President Dr. Jack Miller nailed it in the first five minutes of the conference. He dearly wants a stop on the proposed Hartford to New Britain busway. He's got 1,000 employees and 13,000 students, nearly all of whom arrive by car. The more who can take the bus, the fewer who are on the road.

"TOD ought to stand for no-brainer," said Mayor James Maley of Collingswood, N.J., one of many Garden State communities that has successfully reinvented itself as a transit village. "People want this - they want to go back to the kinds of communities where they grew up." That's when I thought of the edge-of-history Knothole Gang.

Development around transit is working famously in places such as Portland, Ore.; Washington, D.C.; and San Francisco. In other places, it still needs to be sold.

For one thing, said Robert Lane of the Regional Plan Association, where the bus is the mode of transit, "You need to de-stigmatize the bus." Bus rapid transit works quite well in Pittsburgh, Ottawa and elsewhere, and the new buses are quite nice.

Then, you have to explain density. Many people equate density with public housing projects. That was bad density (why many of those projects have been torn down). Good density is places like Beacon Hill, Greenwich Village, even West Hartford Center. It's the place where you grew up, more likely than not.

But getting this done procedurally is another matter.

We now have public officials who get the idea. Williams does; so does House Speaker James Amann. McCarthy worked on transit-oriented development in Massachusetts. Gov. M. Jodi Rell is bringing in a deputy Department of Transportation commissioner to lead transit and transit-oriented development initiatives. She created a new smart growth agency in the Office of Policy and Management.

Nonetheless, as state Sen. Don DeFronzo, co-chairman of the legislature's transportation committee, correctly observed, the authority is fragmented. It will take an unprecedented effort to get all the agencies in line. This needs to happen because the process for building a TOD project today is astoundingly complicated.

Developer Steve Soler is renovating the former Gilbert & Bennett wire mill in the Georgetown section of Redding into a mixed-use, TOD project. It's a terrific project that has won awards before it's even finished. Yet the permitting and financing have been the bureaucratic equivalent of Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Finally, there's the money. Until very recently, state transportation officials have always had money for highways, rarely enough for transit (dare I suggest that TOD is DOT spelled backward?). Toni Gold, the planning and transportation consultant and regular Place contributor, noted that there was almost $3 billion in highway projects earmarked for the state. She said since these were likely to make things worse, it would make sense to shift the money to transit projects.

No one had a good answer why not.

Tom Condon is the editor of Place.

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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