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Rail Line To Airport? Ground's Already Laid

July 3, 2005

Now that the Connecticut Convention Center is open, the scramble is on to connect the new building to downtown and to figure out how to get conventioneers to local restaurants, neighborhood attractions and Bradley Airport.

Despite the millions of dollars of transportation funds spent to bring the I-91 exits up to presumed capacity, we don't really know how much gridlock will ensue when a really big convention comes to town.

There's an unfortunate irony to all of this. How many of these issues could have been avoided by building the Union Station-to-Bradley Airport light rail system that was proposed not so long ago for the old Griffin rail line? Probably most of them.

The Griffin Line, again ironically, was killed the very same year that Adriaen's Landing was proposed for the Phoenix-owned riverfront property, the very same year that Gov. John Rowland stepped in to cut a deal with the New England Patriots by promising a new stadium for them at the same location. That year was 1998.

The Griffin light rail line was the brainchild of Paul Ehrhardt, a 17-year member of the Greater Hartford Transit District and its chairman from 1988 to 1998. Ehrhardt was an investment manager who worked first for CIGNA and later for Aetna. A pinstriped Republican and a stalwart of the Greater Hartford Chamber of Commerce, he was also Simsbury's representative to the Capitol Region Council of Governments' Transportation Committee, which plays an important role in distributing federal transportation funds.

A warm, likable person, he was comfortably wired into the Hartford business establishment. In addition to his impeccable business credentials, Ehrhardt was also, perhaps surprisingly, a visionary and an activist: His cause was mass transit. A veteran of the Nixon administration's Urban Mass Transit Administration, he understood transit and knew what an essential role it plays in downtown revitalization.

He helped pioneer the Washington, D.C., Metro in the 1970s, and was familiar with the utterly arcane federal transportation funding process. He was a tireless advocate who carried his drawings, statistics, slides and case studies from meeting to meeting to meeting, making the case in polite but compelling terms to anyone who would listen. As chairman of the transit district, Ehrhardt had a bully pulpit from which to educate the city, the region, and the business community about the potential of the Griffin Line for transit-oriented development.

The Griffin Line was envisioned to serve the northeast quarter of the Capitol Region, which had poor interstate highway access. It was a natural location for a transit line, with an underused right of way that was already owned by the state Department of Transportation. Ehrhardt led broad consensus-building exercises throughout the host communities; the town of Bloomfield completely rezoned its town center to accommodate the higher densities of transit-oriented development. The Hartford city council enthusiastically endorsed the plan. The neighborhoods of northwest Hartford were on board as well.

Ehrhardt almost succeeded. If he had succeeded, the Griffin Line would be operational today - right now - for the opening of the convention center.

How could a project that should have been a slam-dunk, after 10 years of planning, die a sudden death? While the DOT was the actual executioner through the blunt instrument of threatening to withhold transportation funds from the entire Capitol Region, the DOT was merely the front man. Petty and power politics among Hartford's own politicians, a short-sighted business community, an opposed highway lobby, an indifferent governor, and a failure of leadership and vision among them all were the actual cause of death. But that is an autopsy for another day.

It's a shame, nonetheless, because Ehrhardt had a larger vision, which he and many others thought would fall into place once the Griffin Line was up and operating, and its benefits became self-evident. I once asked him what would come next. He visualized the continuation of the light rail line on the streets, from Union Station east on Asylum Street (which would become a transit and pedestrian mall); the next stop would read "Civic Center" and the one after that "Old State House." He envisioned the train crossing Main Street and running right down State Street to the intersection with Columbus Boulevard, where the signs today could read, "Riverfront Plaza," "Phoenix," "Marriott Hotel" and "Connecticut Convention Center."

Then it would cross the Connecticut River on the Founders' Bridge, then being widened to include a high occupancy vehicle lane. And how would the signs read after that? Why not "Founders Plaza," "Downtown East Hartford," "Pratt and Whitney," "Rentschler Field," "UTC Science Park," "Main Street Manchester," "Mansfield Depot," "University of Connecticut," "Willimantic?" And even beyond: "Mohegan Sun," "Foxwoods," "Norwich" and "New London."

But to some in Hartford's culture of low expectations and desperate need for the quick fix, such a grand vision seemed absurd, impossibly overreaching, and unbearably long-term. Ehrhardt knew that, and for that reason, didn't talk much about the bigger vision. Does it seem absurd, overreaching, and long-term now, as the same transit district tries to solve the problem of airport-to-convention center travelers?

The planning and design work for the Griffin Line still exists; it is only seven years old. The last generation of leaders - the ones with a stake in proving it couldn't work - have passed from the scene. Why not pick up those plans and consider the Griffin Line again? The project is so much more compelling than the tepid busways on which we have spent so much time, money and civic energy over the past five years - but with none of the excitement and commitment that marked the planning for the Griffin Line - as the National Transit Administration discerned when it recently refused the next round of busway funding.

Paul Ehrhardt would roll over in his grave - if he were in his grave - but actually he's in the United Kingdom. He is managing director at Citigroup Asset Management in London. He has disposed of his automobiles, and now uses London`s excellent rail and bus services to meet all of his transportation needs.

Toni Gold of Hartford is a senior associate with Project for Public Spaces and president of Urban Edge Associates. She serves on the board of All Aboard!, a regional transit-advocacy organization, and is a member of the Place board of contributors.

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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