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State Agenda, Part 5: Finish Bus, Rail Lines

Hartford Courant

January 08, 2010

If transportation is destiny, as an old saying has it, Connecticut's in trouble. Our highways are increasingly crowded and we haven't completed a transit project of any note in living memory. But 2010 could and should be the year the state closes in on two major projects.

The legislature's Transportation Committee is meeting this month to prioritize the state's major transportation initiatives. This in itself is a good step. Funds are limited now but could increase with the passage of a new federal transportation bill or another stimulus package. This time more major projects need to be shovel-ready.

The top transportation priority in the state must be the opening of commuter rail service along the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield "Inland Route" line. This project has the potential to change travel and development patterns for the better in the entire central corridor of the state.

Keep Rail Project On Track

To have large numbers of people living, working and traveling on the rail line will save energy, cut pollution and retard the low-density sprawl that is inexorably ruining the scenic character of the state. The rail project will complete an environmental review early this year. It's incumbent that design and track work follow quickly to keep the project on target to open in 2015.

This means the State Bond Commission should, at today's meeting, approve $26 million for double tracking a 10-mile portion of the line and for design and engineering work on the rest of the 62-mile line. The $26 million will make the state eligible for $80 million in federal high-speed rail funds.

The state Department of Transportation is wisely pursuing a strategy that would bring both high-speed and commuter rail to the Inland Route. Even if the high-speed service doesn't materialize, the corridor will be ready for the much-needed commuter service.

The Hartford-to- New Britain busway also should be brought much closer to fruition in 2010. This is a good project that will take traffic off I-84 and be a boon to the four communities along the route.

If federal funding comes through, the busway should open in 2013.

There's been some talk of halting the project and replacing it with rail service from Bristol through New Britain to Hartford. That might be appropriate for long-term study; it's not realistic in the short term.

The better project for Bristol is a rail connection to the Waterbury branch line and service to New York. We think large employers such as ESPN would support such a move.

Change Bradley's Management

The coming year could also be the time the legislature changes the way Bradley International Airport is managed. It is run by the state Department of Transportation, which does a good job with air operations, getting the planes in and out.

But the department, hamstrung by state personnel and contracting rules, traditionally has not been strong in promotion, marketing and retail.

For more than a decade, consultants and others who have studied the airport have called for an independent board or authority like those that run most of the nation's airports to manage the "ground side" of the airport. This would be the year to make the change.

The DOT put 18 road projects on hold in 2009 because funding was uncertain. The one the department should find money for is the redesign of Albany Avenue in Hartford. The Metropolitan District Commission, the region's water and sewer authority, plans to dig much of the road up for a sewer separation project.

Not to go ahead with plans to redesign the road, to make it more of an urban boulevard than the hectic speedway it is now, is to lose a major opportunity.

Finally, the most dramatic transportation project of the early 21st century in Connecticut could be the removal of the Aetna Viaduct, the elevated section of I-84 through the center of Hartford. A committee called Hub of Hartford has engaged a consultant who is studying the options for the 4-decade-old viaduct, which is at the end of its useful life.

The viaduct walls the city in half, cuts off neighborhoods from downtown and creates a lot of wasted land. If a better alternative can be found, Hartford could benefit dramatically.

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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