Connecting via Better Infrastructure

Posted on Monday, December 1 2008 by Heather Brandon

State Capitol in Hartford. Photo by H BrandonAn editorial in today’s Hartford Business Journal notes an urgency for business leaders in the area to “get cracking immediately on a detailed list of infrastructure priorities.” The piece cites Barack Obama’s pending job creation effort to invest heavily in infrastructure projects. Connecticut Governor M. Jodi Rell issued a press release last Friday noting that such potential projects in the state should be shovel-ready in anticipation of the federal assistance.

Rell is meeting with Obama, along with other governors, tomorrow in Philadelphia (see her press release on the subject). She will argue that the federal government should cover the infrastructure projects completely rather than asking the state to pitch in 20 percent, referring to a high level of need along with lacking funds.

Senator Chris DoddIn her release, Rell said, “The nation’s governors have already identified the national transportation system as a top priority for investment. It truly is the lifeblood of our economy for Connecticut and across the country. The jobs these investments will create will help us rebuild both our highway and rail systems and our economy.”

Some such local projects came to light during a November 21 meeting between Senator Chris Dodd (pictured) and various local officials in Enfield.

A house in ThompsonvilleJames Bailey Brislin of the Enfield-based Carpet City Chronicle documented the affair, which placed much focus on the multimodal transit center planned for the Thompsonville area of Enfield (pictured). The center is part of a revitalization plan (see also Voices for Thompsonville and Thompsonville Action Group), and hinges significantly on the commuter rail project in the works linking Springfield, Hartford and New Haven. From the piece:

According to Dodd, Congress plans to utilize a bottom-up approach that concentrates infrastructure funding on local government projects, like the multi-modal transportation center.

Dodd also pointed just north of the Connecticut border to East Longmeadow and Longmeadow, saying the towns ought to rally more advocacy for the rail project, particularly as a regional issue. Rebecca Townsend noted in the comments, “That’s what the Pioneer Valley Advocates for Commuter Rail are trying to do.”

Rails in downtown Springfield. Photo by H Brandon

Similarly, the Business Journal urged decision-makers not to “indulge in pork barrel projects,” but rather come up with “appropriate, forward looking ideas” based on regional need and not favoritism:

It will be important that the region speak with one voice about its needs. Balkanized, haphazard proposals will not be as compelling to those in the new administration who are weighing requests from across the country. And it would be a mistake to view this as an opportunity to indulge in pork barrel projects that serve a narrow constituency but are unlikely to pay long-term dividends for the region.

View of downtown Hartford. Photo by H Brandon

When it comes to infrastructure, there are plenty of voices to the north as well as south of the Massachusetts-Connecticut state line clamoring to get projects underway to benefit the economy.

Rails and I-291 in Springfield. Photo by H BrandonIllustrating the need to cross the border to build support and gain input, the Connecticut Department of Transportation is holding a public hearing in Springfield on Monday, December 8, 6:00 pm at the TD Banknorth Conference Center, 1441 Main Street downtown. The hearing is related to the preparation of an environmental assessment for the proposed north-south commuter rail line.

Downtown Springfield resident Mike Tuckey suggested the Hartford job market might become more open to people in Springfield with a commuter rail link available between the two cities, among other benefits. From his post:

Hartford is estimated to have ten times as many employment opportunites than Springfield. The average train trip to Hartford would take about one half hour for someone in Springfield. A commuter rail link to Hartford would open up the Hartford job market to all those in Springfield, who can not now afford to purchase a car, the “working poor.”

Most rail stations are located in downtown locations. We are all aware of the difficulties faced by northeastern downtowns. Rail transportation would put new, out of town people on our downtown streets every day.

Rail crossing in downtown Springfield. Photo by H BrandonLastly, on a similar but different subject, and as Carol Coletta pointed out in a post yesterday at CEOs for Cities, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter introduced a bill last week called the High Speed Rail for America Act (PDF). According to a press release from Kerry’s office, the bill could raise $23.4 billion for high speed rail projects:

Specifically, the High-Speed Rail for America Act of 2008 provides $8 billion over a six-year period for tax-exempt bonds which finance high-speed rail projects which reach a speed of at least 110 miles per hour.

It creates a new category of tax-credit bonds – qualified rail bonds. There are two types of qualified rail bonds: super high-speed intercity rail facility bond and rail infrastructure bond. Super high-speed rail intercity facility bonds will encourage the development of true high-speed rail. The legislation provides $10 billion for these bonds over a ten-year period. This would help finance the California proposed corridor and make needed improvements to the Northeast corridor.

The legislation provides $5.4 billion over a six-year period for rail infrastructure bonds. The Federal Rail[road] Administration has already designated ten rail corridors that these bonds could help fund, including connecting the cities of the Midwest through Chicago, connecting the cities of the Northwest, connecting the major cities within Texas and Florida, and connecting all the cities up and down the East Coast.

More reflection on the bill and its possible ramifications can be found by Ryan Avent at Grist and by Foon Rhee (and commenters) at the Boston Globe blog Political Intelligence.

9 Responses to “Connecting via Better Infrastructure”

  1. mike tuckey

    Because of our need to reduce domestic dependence on foreign oil for all the reasons everyone already knows; the future of transportation in the U.S. is in greater flux than any time since the introduction of the automobile. Commuter rail is NOT the answer. The answer is multiple options for personal transportation. Commuter rail could and should be one of the options we develop. Thanks to Heather Brandon for this article. She’s still a visionary in journalism.

  2. Herb

    It’s a good start, but $23 billion isn’t a lot of money for HSR, especially if the money is going to be spread around several regions. But I’ll take it.

  3. NoPolitician

    Rail was once attractive in this country for two reasons — it could move people a lot faster than they could previously move — we went from horse-and-cart (what, maybe 20mph at best) to trains (maybe 50mph at the time) pretty quickly — and it could also move more people at once than previously before.

    Automobiles + interstates took half the advantage away from trains by removing the speed advantage and adding flexibility. The bulk advantage still remains, and I suppose one more advantage important in today’s multitasking world is the “let someone else do the driving” aspect.

    We now have the technology to make train travel much faster than automobiles. Ideally, people could get from Springfield to Boston in 45 minutes (assuming a straight track — which is unfortunately not yet reality). Or Springfield to New York in an hour. Or Springfield to Montreal in 2 hours. And remember, people could get from all those places to Springfield in the same amount of time (hello, tourism?)

    The Northeast and Atlantic corridor is the perfect place for high speed rail because of its high density. With mid-distance airline travel becoming more hassle than it’s worth, HSR would be a great economic boon for cities. If you want to get from Springfield to Philly right now, you have to drive 30 minutes to get to Bradley, arrive 60 minutes early, go through all kinds of security tests, 30 minutes to board, wait on the tarmac, fly for 75 minutes, land, 30 minutes to deplane, then drive 30 minutes to get to downtown Philly.

    With a train, the trip could take just over 90 minutes downtown-to-downtown, with minimal boarding/unboarding time and less onerous security. The trip would make much more sense.

    Shifting resources to rail travel would give a much-needed advantage to urban areas.

    I think an important angle here is that we need to nationalize the rails. Train tracks are infrastructure, but are mostly privately owned. Private companies serve their bottom line, not society. Imagine if roads were privately owned, and companies could simply keep certain customers off them at certain times in order to serve higher-paying customers better?

  4. Heather Brandon

    Thanks all for your comments.

    The Courant followed up today with an article about Rell’s meeting with other governors and Obama.

    The paper also has an article today about ConnDOT seeking input on what to do about the stalled busway plan, which some see as an opportunity for improved rail travel.

    There will be a series of meetings over the next week, starting with one tonight, 6:30 pm at the Faxon branch library in West Hartford. The purpose of the meetings is to gather ideas from the public about what they want from the busway.

    Information about other upcoming busway meetings can be found at the CT Transit site, and dates and locations are also listed below for your convenience:

    Wednesday, December 3
    6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
    Faxon Branch Library
    1073 New Britain Avenue
    West Hartford, CT

    Thursday, December 4
    6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
    Union Station
    One Union Place
    Hartford, CT

    Monday, December 8
    6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
    Newington Town Hall
    Helen Nelson Room (Conf. Room B & C)
    131 Cedar Street
    Newington, CT

    Tuesday, December 9
    6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
    New Britain City Hall
    Room #504
    27 West Main Street
    New Britain, CT

  5. Sheila McElwaine http://!?

    Thanks for another great analysis, NoPolitician.

  6. Real Hartford » Blog Archive » Stalling Progress: Transportation in Connecticut

    [...] and New Britain. Regional public transportation isn’t limited to within state boundaries. As Heather Brandon points out, connecting Springfield MA to Hartford via rail would help the economy: “the [...]

  7. Stalling Progress: Transportation in Connecticut « sustainable urban living

    [...] and New Britain. Regional public transportation isn’t limited to within state boundaries. As Heather Brandon points out, connecting Springfield MA to Hartford via rail would help the economy: “the [...]

  8. whforums

    Thanks for the wonderful post.

    Considering its population density, the layout of our local “regional cities” really undercuts our collective strength. As much as Hartford, Springfield, New Haven, Bridgeport and Worcester (and add what you will to the list) define themselves as their own cities with their own identities and problems, forging more significant, regional connections between these discrete governments (and, more importantly, their people) can only help all of us “down the road.”

    If we imagine a rail line that runs North/South (perhaps connecting Springfield to New Haven) as well as a rail line that runs East/West (connecting Hartford’s sprawl to its city — say, from Bolton, at the end of 384 in the East, through Hartford to Canton, at the end of Hartford County in the West), I think you’d see not only a more active and economically viable Hartford (as I write this I selfishly imagine Hartford as a hub), but I think you’d also see a significant decrease in the amount of congestion on our already overburdened highways. Maybe more importantly, this could lead to significant economic development along that rail line. This is not to suggest that we can spend our way out of our economic morass, but is to float the idea that we may be able to build our way out of it (if that building significantly changes the way we consider our geography and the way we interact with our geography). That said, any such proposal would have to be taken withe great precaution — we know that highways have been vehicles of segregation (as much as they have enabled greater equality), and we need to protect against such “wrong side of the tracks” development.

    In the end, high speed rail for CT is probably a dream, but as dreams do from within themselves, it’s gaining its own forward momentum.

  9. Trains and “Greater Hartford” « West Hartford Forums

    [...] example, Heather B. over at Urban Compass has written extensively about the proposed Springfield to Hartford line (that’s where, in the comments section, I first worked out a draft of what I’m trying to think [...]

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