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Don't Let Rail Run Roughshod Over Cities And Towns


January 31, 2010

The $40 million that Connecticut will get from President Obama's $8 billion high-speed rail pot should put the New Haven- Hartford-Springfield commuter project on steroids and help link it to a larger New England system.

As a transit advocate, I'm in favor of high-speed rail. But here's the question I feel compelled to ask: Does federal money make us stupid?

It certainly did in the case of the interstate highway system in the '50s and '60s. When the feds are footing most of the bill, you do what you're told to do to get the money, especially when you're competing with other parts of the country, like Chicago-St. Louis-Detroit, or San Diego- Los Angeles- San Francisco where truly high-speed rail (200-plus mph) linking cities hundreds of miles apart and separated only by vast stretches of rural land is not only possible, but practical.

But what does high-speed rail (defined by the feds as minimum 110 mph) look like on the ground in New England? It's hard to imagine the New England built environment initially developed 300-400 years ago so that every person could walk to church (thus historic town centers covering the landscape every ten miles in every direction) absorbing high-speed rail facilities without massive destruction.

Set aside for the moment the stations where the train would NOT stop like Wallingford, for example, where the tracks are prominent, at-grade parts of the downtown. In my own city of Hartford, where the train WOULD stop, the present tracks still have three at-grade crossings, with gates, flashing lights, clanging engines, stopped automobiles the whole quaint megillah.

These crossings are actually quite safe, and the whole process takes less than a minute, shorter than your standard traffic signal cycle on Farmington Avenue. But then, the Amtrak trains that use them now are moving at only 30-40 mph.

Well, you might say, of course the trains wouldn't be traveling at top speed in the city; they'd be slowing down to stop or just starting to speed up.

OK, then how about Elmwood in West Hartford? How about Newington, the next town southbound? Going north, how about Windsor, Windsor Locks and Enfield, where the high-speed trains would not be stopping but presumably would be attaining their peak speed before slowing down for Springfield?

We can already see the tip of this iceberg in plans for the Hartford- New Britain busway, which uses the existing Amtrak corridor for much of its length. At Flower Street, a one-block street between Farmington and Capitol Avenues, an existing at-grade crossing is deemed too dangerous and this is only for buses, mind you so Flower Street, one of the few connections between those two avenues and a great convenience to Aetna and its new parking garage, will be closed to cars completely at the rail right-of-way; it will become two dead-end streetlets.

Neither the community, Aetna, nor the city likes this, but for the most part it has been accepted with resignation as the price of having the busway, even though it is a step away from the ideal of maintaining and adding to the street grid a key tenet of good urban design and revitalization.

At Flatbush Avenue, on the other hand a street that cannot be closed the decision has been made to "grade-separate" the rail right-of-way. This means a massive bridge over Flatbush, an elevated station, and all of the desolate space underneath that grade separations generally create. And this will occur virtually at the intersection with New Park Avenue, where thriving businesses have already been acquired and street-level retail precluded for the future. It is another anti-urban decision.

The reasoning is that safety must reign and federal specifications must prevail. Everybody, including many leaders in West Hartford, on whose doorstep this is occurring, hates this very expensive solution to a non-problem. So what is the answer?

Whatever "high-speed rail" means for New England, for sure it won't tolerate at-grade crossings. Burying the tracks in many places (and any attached busways along with them), perhaps for much of their length, is one solution.

This is a breathtakingly expensive proposition but so is destroying Connecticut's (and New England's) cities and towns. Please let's not repeat the 20th-century highway mistake with high-speed rail in the 21st century.

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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