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DOT Chief Pushing Light Rail As Connecticut's Best Way To Go


March 01, 2009

Throughout the winter, new strategies for improving Connecticut's transportation system have been surfacing at the Capitol: Extend commuter train service to Rhode Island and Massachusetts; build light rail in Stamford; reconstruct aging freight rail lines.

Mass transit proposals that even a year ago would have been written off as fringe wish-list items are getting serious attention from legislators and policy-makers, a dramatic change in a state that rivals California for its infatuation with cars and highways. The chief appeal is the lure of economic recovery, with transit advocates suggesting that better rail systems would spur commercial development and position Connecticut to grow and sustain its relatively high quality of living when the deep recession lifts.

In appearances around the state, Transportation Commissioner Joseph Marie is citing successes of other states as a powerful reason to beef up Connecticut's rail transit system.

"Eighteen cities opened light rail systems since 1985, and all but one have doubled or tripled in size. In Dallas a study showed real estate values improved 25 percent faster along the LRT than the rest of the region," Marie said recently at the Gallivan Conference, an annual public policy forum at the University of Connecticut's law school.

If light rail and commuter rail systems are designed well and located strategically, they draw clusters of high-quality commercial, housing and retail development around their stops, he said.

"This is not social-engineering lefties-speak, this is Dun and Bradstreet," Marie told an audience of about 70 at the forum.

Since taking over the traditionally highway-centric DOT last summer, Marie has been working to extend Shore Line East service to New London, keep the Metro North fleet upgrade on course, advance the stalled New Haven to Springfield commuter rail project, and speed up studies on improving Metro North's Danbury and Waterbury branches.

Creating better rail links within the state is vital to keeping young workers, attracting upscale employers and reviving languishing cities such as Hartford, Waterbury, New Britain and Meriden, said Norman Garrick, director of UConn's Center for Transportation and Urban Planning.

"Rail can restore the centrality of cities," Garrick told the conference. "If Connecticut is to be competitive, we have to reactivate those cities and relearn the art of place-making."

Garrick is endorsing Rep. David McCluskey's drive to begin passenger service on the Waterbury-Hartford line, a link that McCluskey envisions as part of a desperately needed regional rail network tying together all of New England and New York.

"We can build a state-of-the-art commuter rail system in Connecticut, but if it just ends at the borders it's not going to do anything for economic development," said McCluskey, a West Hartford Democrat.

Marie has been assuring McCluskey and other lawmakers that his agency is changing from decades of focusing on highways.

Perhaps the biggest sign of change at the DOT was Marie's response to a question about reviving the Griffin Line proposal, which predecessors at his agency helped kill in 1998. Marie left open the possibility of reconsidering that plan, saying, "In Minneapolis, it took 32 years from conception to the start of [light rail] service 1972 to 2004."

Eleven years ago, opponents said building a $450 million light rail link from Bradley International Airport to downtown Hartford along the Griffin freight line would be a boondoggle. Some regional planners and transit advocates, though, say short-sighted politicians and bureaucrats squandered an opportunity to revitalize Hartford. They point out that soon after jettisoning the Griffin Line idea, the DOT started championing a 9-mile rapid-transit busway from New Britain to Hartford: Eleven years later, that is still just diagrams and sketches.

Garrick and McCluskey agreed Connecticut should look again at the busway project. Going forward with it would hurt chances for Waterbury-to-Hartford rail service, since the busway would use a stretch of abandoned rail line north of New Britain. The Waterbury- to-Hartford line would have to be routed through Berlin, adding time to the trip.

McCluskey, D-West Hartford, pointed out that commercial and residential development has flourished near the Griffin Line corridor, offering a chance for more ridership than 11 years ago.

"We have an opportunity to reconsider because of the development of the Day Hill Road area," he said.

"Connecticut has made decisions in isolation," said Garrick, who agreed that light rail to the airport and Hartford-to-Waterbury commuter rail would be preferable to a New Britain busway. "We need to do things more holistically."

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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