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Rail Links Would Bolster Bradley, Region

February 5, 2006
By Neal Peirce and Curtis Johnson, Courant Staff Writers

Can all of New England thrive in the new global economy, or does prosperity have to be limited to the region's eastern corridor?

One finds a slowed economic pulse along the Connecticut River Valley and all of western New England. Even economic leaders in the region acknowledge it. And they regularly sum it up in one word: "Bradley."

Is that fair? Even if the only thing "international" about the Bradley International Airport is Canadian-provided propeller service to Montreal (and vacation charters to Mexico), isn't it true that the airport has close to 7 million passengers a year, has added 21 nonstop flights since 2004, now offers low-cost Southwest flights, is expanding its facilities and claims almost $4 billion in regional economic impact?

The answer is yes. But the airport, say its many critics, has been run in a narrow, bureaucratic way, symbolized by the historic mindset of its owner/manager, the Connecticut Department of Transportation. The DOT is said to have made so many long-term concessions to owners of the airport's parking garages (and now depends so heavily the revenue) that competitive new ideas get quashed.

In the '90s, when proposals surfaced for a light rail line from Hartford through Bloomfield to Bradley, the DOT opposed the Griffin Line vigorously, claiming the towns and the state couldn't afford to build and operate it.

The DOT has mollified its critics a tad by approving low-cost preliminary design work on rail service from New Haven to Springfield. With a Bradley extension, such service could be a major catalyst. Across the world, quality rail connections are today defining the growth potential of airports. Why else, for example, does the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority appear so anxious to take over and speed up rail service from Washington and its suburbs to Dulles Airport? It's pure economics: building a larger passenger base. Or as the airports director noted: "For an airport to be successful in the long run, it needs to have multi-modal access." It's no longer reasonable to expect "the only access is by private automobile."

What of positioning Bradley for other new market opportunities - developing major freight facilities or nearby land for industrial parks, warehousing and specialized services, and seeking to stimulate the facility's broader territory in the way that airports like Dallas-Fort Worth have invigorated entire regional economies?

It's been slow going, though some incremental progress, reports Doug Fisher of Northeast Utilities. The airport board finally agreed, for example, to post "Welcome to New England" rather than "Welcome to Hartford" signs in a new terminal.

Other consequences of a lethargic Bradley: Firms such as United Technologies lack convenient nonstop international service, and corporations quickly reject the idea of moving facilities to the region. (The airport's former marketing director - the person in charge of getting international connections for Bradley - couldn't even board an airplane for marketing purposes, because of a state travel freeze on its workers.)

So how does Bradley turn into a major international airline, a symbol of Connecticut River Valley growth? The idea we heard most frequently: Create a bi-state, Connecticut-Massachusetts airport and development authority with more aggressive management, freeing the region's prime growth asset from its parking-lot mentality.

With a expansion mindset, say the impatient local observers, Bradley would be set for 21st-century growth that neither ocean- and land-locked Logan nor the New York City-area airports can easily handle. Most of Bradley's facilities (and long runway) are more than adequate for continued domestic passenger growth, and the location offers better landing weather than Boston or New York - all that's really lacking would be a new international terminal and customs facilities.

Who could make this happen? Best answer: The governors of Connecticut and Massachusetts, acting together. Cynics react instantly that this could never happen, that Connecticut wouldn't share a property it now "owns" exclusively, and Massachusetts would be paralyzed by Massport/Logan jealousy.

But imagine the opposite: two chief executives, each providing some political cover for the other, recognizing their states' economic interdependence, championing collaboration, fostering a vision of a more vibrant Connecticut River Valley and a second major international airport from which both states could benefit immensely. Economic recruitment, new rail links, especially a vision of a new New England that rises above normal parochial, ZIP code politics. The package would represent a dramatic signal to citizens and business markets alike.

At a minimum, the Bradley issue should engender some vigorous debate. An alternative (or even extension) of bi-state authority might be leasing the airport to an aggressive private operator, and using part of the proceeds to finance new rail and road connections. (The model: Chicago's $1.83 billion deal to lease its 1950s-era toll-road Skyway to a Spanish-Australian consortium.) A bi-state Bradley deal, including financing for modern, connecting Connecticut River Valley train service, might even lead to smart service splits - longer-distance flights from Bradley and shorter ones from its new rival, the more regional Tweed Airport at New Haven.

New England has long seemed insulated from the collaborative spirit driving economic and growth deals across the world. But once it breaks loose, it might really take off.

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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