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The Transit Solution

October 9, 2005

With gasoline prices hovering around $3 per gallon, home prices in the region climbing and average commuting times lengthening as well, the capital region has a real opportunity to create an alternative to the car-centered life. It's called transit-oriented development, or TOD.

The basic idea is simple - use transit stops, whether busway or commuter rail stations or enhanced bus stops, as the nucleus for a mix of housing, retail, offices and street enhancements.

Cities and private developers from coast to coast have been investing in transit-oriented development, from northern New Jersey, where aggressively upgraded train stations have attracted retail and housing, to significant mixed-use private development occurring along the Pittsburgh West Busway and well-established urban fabric around downtown Portland's transit stops in Oregon.

The benefits are plentiful. TOD offers an attractive choice for residents who might want to live closer to their jobs or to city amenities. It's a way to reuse urban land, reduce auto use and enrich the built environment. When done well, TOD enhances affordability of housing not only by building a mix of housing types but by decreasing a household's transportation costs. Financial institutions are beginning to offer location-efficient mortgages that explicitly credit households that locate near transit. TOD can set up a "virtuous cycle" with transit patrons attracting development and that development attracting more transit riders.

Here in the capital region, we have a number of opportunities to move forward on transit-oriented development: the proposed New Britain-Hartford busway, the proposed Springfield-New Haven commuter rail, and even some existing bus routes.

The stars may be aligning. The 2005 General Assembly passed a revised planning law that includes six growth-management principles, one of which is "concentration of development around transportation nodes and along major transportation corridors to support the viability of transportation options and land reuse." The act goes on to require that municipalities, regions and the state "identify areas where it is feasible and prudent to have compact, transit-accessible, pedestrian-oriented mixed-use development patterns." Transit-oriented development puts legs under these planning principles.

With a little luck, the U.S. Department of Transportation will give the go-ahead to the New Britain-Hartford busway in March. The busway, with a roadway dedicated for buses only and 11 stations, offers great promise for development. Preliminary station planning showed numerous opportunities for cleaning up polluted sites, intensifying use on underdeveloped sites and redeveloping old and abandoned properties. Similarly, enhancement of the Springfield-Hartford-New Haven commuter rail service offers prospects for upgraded stations and nearby development.

Transit corridors, even without busways or rail, can be used for transit-oriented development. Minneapolis has focused housing, retail and offices in designated bus corridors both inside and out of the downtown areas. One clear possibility here is Farmington Avenue from downtown Hartford to West Hartford. This former trolley line with its mix of land uses and frequent bus service has good TOD potential. If designated as a TOD corridor and with some enhancements in transit service, it could be the focus of investment in housing, businesses and improved streetscapes.

Experience suggests that transit-oriented development does not happen spontaneously but instead responds to public actions and polices. It needs a push in the same way that the market is pushed by transportation investments such as highways and arterials combined with zoning ordinances that permit and encourage highway-oriented development.

So how do we capitalize on these opportunities? Do we need a public/private authority? Do we need a stronger state planning law? As a state and as a region, the time is ripe for a conversation on how we can make TOD happen.

TOD is not a silver bullet for all of our urban development needs, but it is a very promising tool for the region. The opportunity is clear.

Lyle D. Wray is executive director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at
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