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Long-Distance Runaround

Everyone seems to agree that an ambitious New Haven/Hartford/Springfield commuter rail plan is an inspiring idea, but is it realistic?

Gregory B. Hladky

July 21, 2009

Viable commuter rail service between New Haven, Hartford and Springfield has become a transportation wet dream for swarms of Connecticut politicians, environmentalists, economists and anyone fearful of a gridlocked I-91.

It's a glittering vision: cleaner air, fewer consumer dollars being sucked away at the gas pump, less urban sprawl, quicker commutes, even images of sleek Euro-style high-speed trains. And for politicians like Republican Gov. Jodi Rell and Democratic U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, there's the prospect of sexy reelection campaign ads.

The problem with wet dreams is waking up to cold, messy reality.

No one really knows what a workable New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter rail system would cost, how we'd pay for it, or when it could actually begin running.

Estimates of the price tag start at $750 million and go up from there. Completion could be 2014, or 2015, or maybe 2017.

Meanwhile, Rell and a shell-shocked legislature are struggling to deal with a two-year budget chasm estimated at more than $8 billion. Bridging that gap is almost certain to involve tax increases, spending cuts and big-time borrowing a scenario likely to leave little for costly new projects.

That's only the start. There's also the need to work with Massachusetts and other New England states to a create regional rail system, negotiating with Amtrak (which owns the 62-mile line), and competition with other rail-hungry states like California for a chunk of President Obama's $8 billion high-speed rail aid program.

And don't get too juiced up by "high-speed" hype. We ain't talking Japanese bullet trains or France's TVG here.

If everything goes exactly right, including getting somebody to build the necessary kind of rail cars, the top speed for this section of track might hit 125 mph. The average speed, state experts say, would be a somewhat-less-than-scintillating 60 mph.

The kicker is that the agency in charge of this thing is Connecticut's Department of Transportation, an organization with a history of resistance to anything but highways. The DOT's recent "management" record has been pock marked with multi-million-dollar miscalculations, corruption scandals, bureaucratic delays, lax oversight and huge cost overruns.

A couple of years ago, Rell got so freaked out by the DOT's slug-like inertia and anti-rail/bus attitude that she wanted to blow the whole place to pieces. Her idea for divorcing the highway and mass transportation units got buried by ugly budget forecasts and fears of creating even more bureaucracy.

Rell's response was to bring in a new commissioner (the DOT's seventh this decade) with a pro-mass transit reputation and a record of bringing rail projects in on time and within budget.

The agency's latest boss is Joe Marie, who calls the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield project "the most important initiative we have."

"We've spent a lot of time in the past year getting this organization more equipped and more prepared to deal with the mega projects in front of us," Marie said.

Marie admits the DOT "still has quite a bit of engineering work to do" to come up with an accurate cost estimate for a workable commuter rail scheme. At the same time, he insists the plan can be pulled off for $750-850 million. Marie also sounds confident about the timeline: "I think improved commuter rail service could be done by 2015."

The co-chairman of the legislature's Transportation Committee, state Sen. Donald DeFronzo, gets an unpleasant sensation in the pit of his stomach when he hears a DOT official say things like that.

"If we had all that money on the table right now, then maybe 2014-15 would be a real number," said DeFronzo, a New Britain Democrat who is enthusiastic about mass transit programs. "I've learned not to be all that confident about these target dates ... we have ample reason to be skeptical."

The DOT's record of delay on big infrastructure projects is the cause of DeFronzo's unease. The planned New Britain-Hartford Busway and a major New Haven rail car maintenance facility are "all lagging behind schedule," he said.

DeFronzo is particularly nervous about preliminary DOT cost estimates on a complex project like the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield scheme. "The actual cost has never been figured out," he warned.

He has painful memories of the DOT's miscalculations on that New Haven rail maintenance plant. When first proposed in 2005, the rail car repair shop was expected to cost $300 million. Five years later, transportation experts told stunned lawmakers the actual cost would be nearly $1.2 billion.

The initial cost 1998 estimate for the New Britain-Hartford Busway project was under $100 million, according to DeFronzo. Delays and revisions have bumped that figure to $600 million.

And the new commuter rail plan seems a lot more complex than getting a 9-mile busway operating.

The state's rail plan involves building three new stations in North Haven, Newington and Enfield to go with existing platforms in eight other spots along the 62-mile route. More than 20 miles of the existing route has only a single track, and the entire line would need double track to significantly improve service. The "high speed" element would require electrification of the whole line, at a cost of more than $200 million, and a super-sophisticated signaling and traffic control system. In theory, the current six daily round-trips would be increased to 10 a day.

Marie believes his agency's estimate of an initial commuter ridership of 2,200 is "conservative to say the least. ... We know there is a strong latent demand for commuter services in the state of Connecticut."

Removing 2,200 commuter cars from the highway each day would make a big difference in cutting traffic, Marie said. He and other supporters of the plan argue Connecticut needs to do something about I-91 congestion now, before the highway turns into another version of the I-95 rush-hour parking lot.

(The high spot for traffic volume on I-95 is in Stamford, with 159,100 vehicles per day. The most congested part of I-91 is at the Rocky Hill-Wethersfield line, with 151,500 cars daily. The location with the highest daily traffic count in Connecticut is on I-84 in Hartford between Capitol Avenue and Sigourney Street.)

"We were way behind the curve in improving rail service (in southwestern Connecticut)," said Jim Cameron, chairman of the Commuter Rail Council for the Metro-North Line. "You don't build railroads for existing potential ridership. You do it for the future."

Which is why the idea of creating an effective, efficient commuter rail service has such political sex appeal. "It's an important project for the governor, for Dodd, for everybody," said DeFronzo.

So everybody's on board and ready to ride this dream train.

Now, all we need to know is the price of the ticket, where to get the cash, how long the ride will be, and whether that DOT crew knows what the hell it's doing.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
     
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