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Trains Could Put Hartford At Center Of Region

April 22, 2007
Opinion By TOM CONDON, Courant Staff Writer

After 9/11, several Hartford companies brought some or all of their New York operations to Hartford until new arrangements could be made in Manhattan. The move offered a glimpse of what could happen if it were easier to get from Hartford to New York, or Hartford to Boston.

If there were high-speed rail connections to Boston or New York, companies could shift back office or manufacturing work here permanently. People could more easily live here and work in the larger cities, or vice-versa. Instead of being two regions, Boston and New York would become a mega-region - with Connecticut right in the center.

This is at present a fanciful idea, but only in the United States. High-speed rail is a reality in much of the developed world. Most major European cities are connected by high-speed rail, and are prospering. Earlier this month a French TGV train broke a world speed record when it raced down a new track at 357 mph.

Raise your hand if you've ever seen new track. Most of our trains, which ply the ancient skeletal remains of the New Haven Railroad, cannot outrun auto traffic, at least until congestion slows down the cars.

"On the transportation front, New England seems frozen in time and space, unaware of how isolated and inefficient it's becoming with its overburdened interstates, poorly maintained bridges and roads, shrunken and imperiled rail service and lack of a modern deep-water cargo port," wrote Neal Peirce and Curtiss Johnson in their 2005 New England Futures study.

To improve transit in southern New England, it will by definition require at least three states to work together. This itself would be a novelty; interstate cooperation being limited to such things as Connecticut Day at the Big E. Pierce and Johnson described the New England Governors Conference as "extraordinarily weak."

But perhaps the idea is finally sinking in.

A week ago there was a first-ever Southern New England Transportation Summit, suggested and sponsored by state Rep. David McCluskey and state Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., respectively, and organized by Jim RePass, president of the National Corridors Initiative and a longtime advocate for better rail connections.

The lieutenant governors of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Timothy Murray and Elizabeth Roberts, both came and said, in effect, yes, we have to work together and do this.

The advantages of a high-speed rail network are many and obvious. It would help break the bottleneck on I-95 between Bridgeport and Greenwich, and do so with less consumption of foreign oil. It would take pressure off airports by moving some shorter trips to trains. It would make core cities more attractive and thus lessen sprawl.

But an intriguing advantage for Connecticut was one proposed by Kip Bergstrom, executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Policy Council. Bergstrom was the first graduate student at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government to specialize in economic development, and oversaw economic development in Stamford from 1993 to 1997, when the city's office and industrial vacancy rate fell from 20 percent to 4 percent and more than 6,000 jobs were added.

Bergstrom's premise, slightly oversimplified, is that inventors and entrepreneurs still like to meet face to face ( Jane Jacobs said this 40 years ago). Indeed, that's how they get things done. Because so much of their knowledge is "tacit," they don't know what they know until there's a context for it (This may explain why more people who could work at home choose not to). So, from the computer geeks in Silicon Valley to the biotech innovators in Cambridge, these people tend to find each other.

Until now they've clustered in metropolitan areas, the modern versions of which were created by the highway system built after World War II. These extend the distances people are willing to commute. Thus Stamford is in the New York metro area, but Hartford is not. "With high-speed rail, Hartford and Springfield get into the game played by Providence and Stamford," Bergstrom said in an interview Monday.

With high-speed rail, the "labor shed" becomes larger. More inventors and investors get into the mix, there is a larger "cluster of capability." The Boston inventors connect with their counterparts in New York, and the overlap is Connecticut.

Bergstrom's thesis rings true. High-speed rail would change the face of southern New England for the better. Let's hope the states pull together and get federal authorities behind them.

This will take a major commitment of federal dollars (though if Connecticut hadn't lowered the gas tax in the 1990s, we'd have about $2.5 billion for transportation improvements). But this ought to be the next major federal investment. Since the interstate highway system was finished, there's been no focus to federal transportation policy - thus the wasteful bridges to nowhere. Let's focus on fast trains to somewhere.

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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