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Connecticut Needs To Work Fast For High-Speed Rail Line

Rick Green

June 12, 2009

The future isn't a busway-to-and-from-nowhere, it's high-speed railroad lines.

It's about connecting our state to major cities and a 90-minute trip to New York or Boston. It's about linking up all of New England with the world not New Britain to Hartford, for God's sake.

Most definitely, the future is not about a 1990s-era, 9-mile busway from New Britain to Hartford.

Savvy bureaucrats and politicians angling for re-election know this. So do business leaders who are desperate to make Connecticut more competitive with the world.

The future is about high-speed rail between New Haven and Springfield.

You won't find President Barack Obama, who wants to christen a new high-speed commuter rail line, at a groundbreaking for a drab "busway" that screams We Live in the Past.

This enlightened self-interest is fine, because in the race to show Obama that Connecticut can be a high-speed rail star, we've got to be ruthless.

The coming weeks are critical. Within days, the Federal Railroad Administration will release the rules for applying for $8 billion in high-speed rail stimulus money. Within months, the money will be handed out.

Connecticut will be competing against larger and more sophisticated rail routes Chicago to St. Louis, Houston to Atlanta and the state of California are a few so we must play every angle, including the Dodd card.

It is more than fortuitous that Obama has already said he's going to do what it takes to return Chris Dodd to the Senate. Dodd, meanwhile, needs to deliver for Connecticut to help us forget about Countrywide Mortgage, the Iowa primary debacle and his Washington arrogance. It may take a $500 million railroad line to do this.

Connecticut could be poised to win big. Already, Gov. M. Jodi Rell has joined with Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick to pitch a "shared vision of developing a world-class regional rail commuter service along the Springfield Line corridor." The feds look favorably on this sort of cooperation.

Rell would be wise to bring the rest of the New England states together to create a regional compact or authority to design, build, fund and run a regional high-speed railroad.

"If you were to tell me a year ago where do I think this project is going to go, I'd say there were a lot of hurdles," said Joseph Marie, our forward-thinking transportation commissioner. In recent months, Marie has drummed up support in Washington for a commuter rail line between New Haven and Springfield. "Now we are talking about what can be done and when."

"This is not just connectivity to Springfield. It's connectivity north to Vermont. It's an inland route through Springfield and east into Boston. It's a great thing for freight [rail] opportunities."

The long-discussed busway, rearing its hideous head once again, will encourage car travelers to interrupt their commute, park in New Britain and take a bus into Hartford. Need I say more?

"Why would you drive into New Britain when you are within 15 minutes of Hartford? Why go through this rigmarole to save 15 minutes of commuting time?" said state Sen. Donald DeFronzo, co-chairman of the General Assembly's transportation committee, who believes we should focus on railroads, not busways.

Connecticut can dither around and build a busway or it can focus all energies around commuter rail that links this state with the outside world. Which state would you rather do business in?

Last year it was still pie-in-the-sky and something that couldn't possibly be built before 2016. This is changing fast, but we've got to seize the opportunity.

"Could you see this service running by 2014?" Marie said to me. "It's possible."

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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