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DOT Still Headed In The Wrong Direction

TRANSIT

By TONI GOLD

January 25, 2009

Correction appended

Recently I heard Gov. M Jodi Rell interviewed on WNPR regarding her plans for qualifying Connecticut transportation projects for federal stimulus funds. The week before, I attended a public input session held by the state Department of Transportation and its consultants for the planned New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter rail service. Shortly afterward I saw the new transportation commissioner, Joseph Marie, the first transit man to head the state DOT, interviewed on WSFB's "Face the State."

What a bummer, in every case.

Despite all the happy talk of a brand new transportation day in Connecticut, there seemed to be little understanding of how to implement such a vision, and worse no vision. One bright spot was Commissioner Marie's response to Dennis House's request to identify the biggest transportation problem facing the DOT. "Rebuilding trust in the department," he responded immediately.

Right on. And he's a big believer in multi-modalism. Great but the remainder of the interview gave no suggestion of what that means.

There was no mention of reorganization, new standards and procedures or new personnel; no suggestion of how to turn the Titanic that is the DOT away from its century-long fixation on highways and toward transit, a multi-modal culture, and community-friendly road-building.

A question about congestion on I-95 in Fairfield County brought the lament that there was not enough land available to widen I-95 (as though that would solve the problem). Although, Marie said, the DOT had been able to add "operational lanes" (ramp lengthenings, often from one exit to the next). In this part of the state we know the operational lanes strategy as the de-facto widening of I-84 which merely increases local on- and off-hopping and actually aggravates congestion.

He said that one of the biggest obstacles to improving Metro North ridership was a lack of parking using the term "transit-oriented development" as though it meant nothing more than more parking garages around train stations.

Doesn't he know by now that we can't build our way out of it? Doesn't he understand that more driving is not the key to increasing transit ridership? Is he drinking the Kool-aid served up by his inherited highwaymen?

At the well-attended hearing on the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter rail line Dec. 9 in Hartford's Union Station, the most frequently asked question was "Why is it taking so long?" More than one citizen pleaded, "Please don't make this another 10-year fiasco like the Hartford- New Britain busway."

And while the barriers to quick implementation of the commuter rail service are real the antiquated and inadequate condition of the tracks and the ownership of the right-of-way by Amtrak, for example it's hard to believe there is really a commitment to make this project work. Even in the maximum-build alternative, there are no plans for grade separation at the 59 at-grade street crossings that make the present train trip between Hartford and New Haven slower than the bus. And there will still be no one-seat ride into New York City because the Amtrak line will not be electrified, thus perpetuating the annoying change from diesel to electric engines in New Haven.

And there is at present no funding commitment identified for implementation of the new service. This is commitment? This is a transit policy?

The real source of the problem was apparent in a lengthy Dec. 11 WNPR interview with the governor on "Where We Live." Obviously the governor doesn't do what the first President Bush called "the vision thing." She named a laundry list of ready-to-go road and bridge projects. When asked about the Hartford-New Britain busway and the commuter rail project, Mrs. Rell dismissed these projects as not "shovel-ready."

Does this mean Connecticut will be stuck building ill-conceived projects, such as Route 11 in eastern Connecticut, because they happen to be "shovel-ready?"

The federal program is rapidly taking shape in Washington, but there still is an opportunity to influence it.

However, the governor made no mention of lobbying for planning and design funds as well as construction money a strategy emerging among national smart-growth and transit advocates to broaden the types of eligible projects and allow states to prioritize around their long-range plans.

Good for interviewer John Dankosky, who asked Rell in several different ways in vain whether the shovel-ready projects served a larger transportation vision. I came away with the impression not that the governor was evading, but that she really didn't understand what he meant.

At this epochal turning point in national policy, of what may be the largest federal commitment to infrastructure spending since the construction of the interstate highway system, will Connecticut be caught with its plans down?

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction

The host of WNPR's "Where We Live" program is John Dankosky. His name was misspelled in the Jan. 25 Place article "DOT Still Headed In The Wrong Direction."

Toni Gold is a private consultant in Hartford. She is a member of the boards of 1,000 Friends of Connecticut and of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, and is a member of the Place Board of Contributors.

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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