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High-Speed Rail, Or Business As Usual?

Rick Green

December 08, 2009

If this new railroad line between New Haven and Springfield is such a good idea, why are our leaders doing their petulant best to ruin its chances?

We need to show that we want this economy-changing transportation investment.

Instead, it's starting to look like the same old politics is at work.

Partisan bickering apparently compelled legislative Democrats, then Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell, to twice postpone borrowing important seed money for the project, about $26 million.

That investment, as Democratic state Rep. David McCluskey told me, would show Washington that Connecticut is serious about an investment in commuter rail. The Obama administration "is looking to help those states that help themselves," he said.

This is a big money investment during the Great Recession, but we have to be prepared to grow. There's an economy we must rejoin when the clouds lift. High-speed rail linking Hartford with New York and Boston in 90 minutes, plus a reliable commuter line, will make Connecticut competitive in the future.

Most important, there is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at stake here with $8 billion in railroad stimulus money from the federal government on the table. If we don't move, others will get it.

"You have a broad swath of support for this," said Ryan Lynch of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. "You have transit advocates, you have business advocates, you have labor and environmental advocates. It's not very frequent that you all agree on one issue."

The Obama administration right now is trying to decide whether Connecticut and Massachusetts deserve this money. Other states, including Illinois and California, have prepared their own ambitious requests.

Sen. Chris Dodd, a key ally for the Obama administration, has made the railroad a top priority. But without support back here in Connecticut, that won't get us there.

"We are at a critical point in terms of the availability of federal funding for high speed rail," House Speaker Christopher Donovan said in a letter to Gov. Rell a few days ago, complaining about the decision to cancel a State Bond Commission meeting this month at which the $26 million could have been allocated.

The $26 million, Donovan said, would go toward track improvements and design work that "will go a long way toward showing that we in Connecticut are willing to invest in a project that has such enormous potential to the economic future of our state and the region."

I couldn't agree more. So why did members of Donovan's own party scuttle approval of the money back in November? One view is that imperial legislators in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly didn't like the fact that Transportation Commissioner Joseph Marie was moving aggressively on the rail plan without obtaining the blessings of Democratic kingpins.

For years we had a plodding Department of Transportation that believed its only responsibility was to make bigger highways. Now we have Marie a recognized expert in building mass transit who has placed the New Haven-to-Springfield line at the top of his list and legislators are jerking him around. How disappointing.

"We really need to take action in January to send a clear message that the state is serious about the [railroad] line. If it goes beyond that, it's going to be a problem," Marie told me, adding that "the governor has pushed me hard on this."

"My hope is that there will be action in January and that will put us in a position for whatever may happen at the federal level."

The Democratic leadership and Gov. Rell owe us more than the usual partisanship. They should act decisively now and remove this latest roadblock from high-speed rail.

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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