Finally, Connecticut is getting serious about transit. Many experts persuasively argue that a commuter rail line linking New Haven, Hartford and Springfield and better connecting the region with New York and Boston, along with other transit projects such as the Hartford-New Britain busway, can relieve congestion and auto emissions, create jobs and stimulate Connecticut's economy. Transit makes sense for many reasons.
But what doesn't get enough attention is housing and other development near transit stations. Housing is the missing link that makes transit work.
Despite a softening market, Connecticut's housing prices are still higher than most other states — a competitive disadvantage in attracting and retaining workers and businesses. Housing costs are high largely because we have an undersupply of housing: Connecticut is 47th nationally in its per capita rate of housing production since 2000. With demand driving up prices, workers and young people are leaving the state. To make Connecticut competitive and help it climb out of recession, thousands of housing units affordable to workers are needed.
Fortunately, many Connecticut municipalities want more housing. The state's HOMEConnecticut program offers grants for towns to plan Incentive Housing Zones where higher-density, mixed-income housing can be built in sensible locations including downtowns, near transit, in redeveloped brownfields and near job centers. More than 45 municipalities have applied for grants or have already received them. Demand is high for the housing Connecticut lacks — affordable rentals, townhomes and starter homes — and we expect thousands of housing units to be built in the next few years.
If significant housing is built near transit stations, many problems are solved at once. Residents could walk to the train and leave the car at home, reducing transportation costs, energy use, emissions and climate change. They would frequent nearby shops, restaurants and services, boosting the local economy and increasing sales tax revenue. Research shows property values near transit stops rise, increasing local property taxes. Thousands of jobs would be created during construction and ongoing jobs would be possible because the capacity to house workers would rise.
To make the transit a reality, significant state funding must complement federal transportation dollars. The MetroHartford Alliance advocates the adoption of two specific transportation funding mechanisms during the current legislative session — phasing in the 15 cents-per-gallon gas tax that was cut in the 1990s and establishing electronic tolling.
Resulting revenues must be invested in priority transportation projects. The alliance also applauds Gov. M. Jodi Rell's budget proposal to transfer $20 million in gross receipts tax to the Special Transportation Fund to help reduce the deficit in this crucial account in the next fiscal year.
By moving quickly, Connecticut may capitalize on federal stimulus money, this year's Surface Transportation Reauthorization Bill and Washington's renewed spending on infrastructure. And housing added through the HOMEConnecticut program will cost relatively little public money. Further, housing near transit stops would boost ridership and thus fare revenue, making transit less reliant on public subsidies.
The state's budget crunch will challenge policy-makers over the next few months, but focusing on transit and housing could be crucial in getting past the tough times we're in.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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