NEW LONDON — - After decades of unquestioning allegiance to cars, trucks and highways, Connecticut must go back to its long-ignored railroads if it expects to prosper in this increasingly difficult new century, transit advocates said at a day-long conference Friday.
The message was hardly new, but the audience was.
Instead of a couple of dozen hard-core rail partisans, the session brought a standing-room-only crowd of 120 people, including a lineup of politically powerful speakers.
Legislators promised a new effort to break a "highways first" culture in state government, and former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons described the Obama administration's stimulus plan as an extraordinary chance to expand rapid transit throughout Connecticut and New England.
"For sure, transit's moment has arrived," U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd told the crowd. "We have entered a transformational moment, a once-in-a-generation opportunity. But these moments don't last long."
Dodd, whose Banking Committee has major influence over federal transportation policy, described 2009 as a pivotal year for rebuilding half-abandoned rail routes and extending new ones. That will create good-paying construction jobs in the short term, and will transform the region in the long run, he said.
Dodd cited the long-overdue Springfield-to-Hartford-to-New Haven commuter rail project as an example of what New England needs to be economically competitive in the 21st century.
Sponsored by the Sierra Club and the National Corridors Initiative, the "Need for Speed" forum focused on ways to create better high-speed rail through the region, and substantially expand commuter rail, light rail and freight service. Rail advocates have run similar sessions for years, but are getting more attention because of the nation's economic crisis and the dizzying summertime spike in fuel prices.
State Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams said highway congestion, fuel costs and the deep recession make rail transit a priority like never before.
"The irony is, now is when some folks who've opposed mass transit initiatives are starting to get religion," Williams said. "Does anyone think they're going to see fuel prices this depressed when we come out of this [downturn]?"
Speakers agreed that building light rail and extending the Shoreline East commuter system will require regional cooperation, famously rare among New England towns where home rule is cherished. They also said Connecticut's governor will have to work closely with counterparts in other states to improve high-speed rail in the region.
"It's easy to do roads and bridges. Rail takes extra effort," Simmons said. "Don't let anybody in Connecticut talk about 'shovel-ready' for roads and bridges without talking about 'shovel-ready' for rail. Don't let the governor or the legislature pass any stimulus without rail — it's good for the economy, it's good for transit, it's good for the environment."
Dodd told the audience to press their congressmen to back his National Infrastructure Bank initiative for federal financing of big-ticket upgrades for major bridges, rail lines and seaports and similar projects.
Matt Nemerson of the Connecticut Technology Council suggested a stiff regional gas tax — enough to push the current cost to $3 a gallon — to create a regional transit fund.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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