Last week Governor Rell submitted an application to the Federal Rail Administration for a $220 million grant for construction work on the long-planned New Haven-Hartford-Springfield, Massachusetts high-speed commuter rail line. The State is expected to bond an additional $260 million for the same project. Will this project just chew up tax dollars or will it provide an economic engine for long term growth?
The application has support from 20 members of Congress as long range plans call for extending the rail line to Vermont and Montreal Canada. Rell called the project, “an essential investment” and said, “It will pay dividends to generations of travelers, open new pathways to economic development and educational attainment, enhance freight options, reduce congestion and help to remove the negative environmental effects of thousands of automobiles on the Interstate 91 corridor.” It all sounds so wonderful but experience and history is a great teacher and we have lessons to learn from current Connecticut rail services.
The New Haven to New York rail system is convenient and reasonable in cost for travel but is severely limited in reasonable availability for most of our citizens. If a resident of Hartford County wants to take the train to New York City for an evening of Big East basketball at Madison Square Garden they must plan ahead or pay a severe penalty.
The only reasonable parking lot at the New Haven station reaches capacity by 8:15am so either you leave at 6:15am for a 7:00pm game or you pay a heavy price and a late night walk on dimly lit streets to find your car upon your return. State and Federal dollars have been poured into the rail service in Connecticut but planners have done a miserable job of planning when it comes to parking cars to ride the train.
Planners must expand their thinking beyond riders in taxis and buses arriving to use the trains. The taxpayers paying the bill should expect to have the opportunity to use the rail lines as a pleasant alternative to individual automobile driving. Mass transit planners can no longer ignore the vital roll automobiles play in the life of citizens living beyond the city limits. If you want to encourage mass transit it must include private vehicle parking that will encourage ridership. Far too often parking is looked at as a revenue stream to support and subsidize other costs associated with mass transit.
The majority of the 4,000 automobiles that are suppose to be removed from our roads by this project are currently providing transportation and many will be used to access this rail service. This rail service must be convenient, clean and competitively priced to become a people mover for Connecticut.
If the planning is not realistic we will only have another boondoggle project like the original “people mover” at Bradley Airport. History tells us it was torn down by Democratic Governor Ella Grasso without ever being used after spending millions of taxpayer dollars to build it.
In this economy a project of this type is important, the jobs will be welcome, the targets of achievement are admirable and yet the level of expectation is questionable. We the taxpayers must hold legislators accountable for the planning approved when funding is requested. Unlike the United States Congress, Connecticut legislators should be expected to read the proposal before they vote to approve it. Approval of bonding for a well planned proposal for this project is a reasonable and responsible action to expect from our representatives, both Democrats and Republicans.