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Dodd: Commuter Train Key To 'Smart Growth' Development In Connecticut


June 17, 2009

As federal bureaucrats on Tuesday announced a strategy to reduce greenhouse gases and urge Americans to live closer to their jobs, Sen. Christopher Dodd cited the New Haven-to-Springfield rail initiative as a key to future "smart growth" development in Connecticut.

Starting commuter and high-speed train service along the route "will create new transit villages, get people off the roads, and revitalize our regional economy," Dodd said as he convened a Senate banking committee hearing in Washington.

Dodd also cited the state-funded HOMEConnecticut program as a successful example of linking housing and transportation policy to encourage mixed-income housing near transit centers.

"It's a strategic investment in our economy, our environment, and our quality of life," Dodd said. "We've already begun to make progress in Connecticut and we can do more across the country."

The hearing was largely a way to publicize a shift in public policy under the Obama administration, with a heavy focus on getting Americans to drive less, stop suburban sprawl and cut foreign oil consumption. Three Cabinet members the chiefs of the environmental protection, transportation, and housing and urban development agencies told the committee that they're making unprecedented efforts to make that happen, and announced a new interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities, designed to remove barriers to transit and housing regulations.

"We need to synchronize climate change, transportation and housing policy," HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said "people need access to buses, light rail, walking, biking. That direction is the wave of the future."

The federal Department of Transportation will expedite new mass transit projects, which can languish for 10 to 15 years between initial proposals and actual start of service, LaHood said.

Transit advocates in Connecticut have been pushing for New Haven-to-Springfield commuter rail service since the mid-1990s, but the project had little momentum until this year. Massachusetts and Connecticut officials are working with Amtrak to apply for a share of the Obama administration's stimulus funding for high-speed rail to make major improvements along the 62-mile line. Amtrak would use the corridor for part of new, 110-mph service linking Hartford to New York and eventually to Boston. The state DOT would use the same tracks for daily commuter trains with nearly 10 stops along the way.

Wallingford has applied to HOMEConnecticut for state help to create an incentive housing zone around its train station on the route, a project that has won praise from "smart growth" proponents in the state.

LaHood and others emphasized that revamping the way America develops requires coordinating land use rules, local zoning codes and environmental regulations, as well as federal housing and transportation policy. A key goal is to stop the spread of new housing that requires costly new highways and utility connections while it consumes unspoiled countryside and farmland.

"Where you live affects how you get around, how you get around affects where you live, and both decisions affect our environment," Enivronmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson said.

With about 70 percent of oil consumed in the U.S. going to transportation, the country needs to do more than design efficient cars or count on breakthroughs in fuel technology, Jackson said. "Reducing the number of miles we drive must be part of the solution."

Donovan said his agency is developing a way to estimate the year-to-year energy expenses of individual houses. He compared it to estimated mileage information that's provided with new cars, and said home buyers and builders of energy-efficient homes would benefit.

Dodd warned that failing to overhaul the country's development patterns will ruin rural landscapes, worsen traffic congestion, increase pollution, hold back economic growth and keep lower-income families paying a huge share of their household income for transportation expenses.

"In large part due to congested roadways and the lack of affordable housing and transit options, Connecticut ranks 49th in the country in keeping our young people in state," Dodd said. "Meanwhile, living in a transit-rich neighborhood saves money on average, as much as 10 percent of a family's budget."

Dodd acknowledged that changing development patterns is an ambitious goal.

"It's time we took on some big issues in this country," he said. "The small-bore politics of not too long [ago] is hopefully over with."

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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