Civic, Business Leaders in Hartford Urge Speed in Planning Rail

Posted on Wednesday, December 10 2008 by Robert Cotto

Audience at ConnDOT's public hearing. Photo by R CottoWilbur Smith AssociatesA crowd of 40 people gathered Tuesday evening for a public scoping hearing at Hartford’s Union Station to hear plans on the developing New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter rail line.

Ralph Trepal. Photo by R CottoRalph Trepal, PE (pictured), regional vice-president of Wilbur Smith Associates—headquartered in South Carolina, and ConnDOT‘s consultant—led the presentation on the status of the project. In front of business and civic leaders, Trepal described the goals of project, the details of an environmental assessment underway, and alternative proposals. (Chapter 7 [PDF] of the June 2005 commuter rail implementation plan described the anticipated potential environmental issues associated with the project.)

Audience members implored the consultants and ConnDOT officials to proceed on the project with a sense of urgency.

In a 30-minute presentation, Trepal elaborated on next steps toward planning the rail line. Some of the touted benefits of the project include expanded travel options, reduction of overall vehicle miles traveled, improved air quality, and support of economic development initiatives.

Ralph Trepal. Photo by R Cotto

Start-up schedule for rail. Photo by R CottoDespite the potential benefits, Trepal admitted, “We’re not going to get all cars off the road.” Nevertheless, he was optimistic that even a partial implementation of the project, the “start-up” alternative, can meet most of the project’s goals.

Full build schedule for rail. Photo by R CottoMuch of the presentation revealed potential hurdles the project might face, namely unforeseeable environmental and social impacts. Several times throughout the meeting, Trepal insisted the project will not happen if the community does not want it. He referenced past projects, such as the interstate highway system, which divided communities and cities like Hartford, as an example of initiatives that had unintended consequences.

Jackie McKinney. Photo by R CottoAlthough Wilbur Smith appeared to have accounted broadly for many local, unique issues each community may face, there were also gaps in the current study.

Jackie McKinney (pictured), member of the Hub of Hartford’s steering committee, noted the city’s Union Station has traffic issues at its drop-off and pick-up points during the winter holidays. She wondered if, because the station appears to have design and traffic challenges now, what problems will exist if the station becomes a major commuter rail hub along the proposed line. Similarly, attendee Stephen Mitchell noted the heavy Friday northbound traffic toward Springfield.

Site plan for Hartford's Union Station

Such observations appeared to take the Wilbur Smith consultants by surprise, showing a possible lack of detailed local knowledge in the course of the study, which began in February.

Trepal alerted the audience that their comments and suggestions were being noted, referencing the two videographers hired by the consulting firm to record the event, and adding that footage may be used to create future video commercials about the project. He also appeared to indicate a need for patience.

Joseph Langlais, left, with Bob Painter. Photo by R CottoMost audience members who spoke seemed to agree the commuter rail project would lend impetus to making the region more vibrant. However, many of the speakers were displeased with the perceived dragging pace of the project. Joseph Langlais (pictured at left, with Bob Painter), president of the Parkville Revitalization Association, exemplified the mood of the meeting when he asked, “When will shovels hit the dirt?”

Commuter rail mapCynthia Holden, ConnDOT’s transportation assistant planning director, answered solemnly, “Ten to 12 years.” She further explained that with an estimated price tag of at least $300 million, the project has many bureaucracies to pass through. With the federal government a potential source of funding, the project is that much more complicated.

Two audience members inquired about the availability of the publicized infrastructure spending pledged by the incoming Barack Obama administration. Representatives of ConnDOT responded that there are already projects “ready to go,” which would take priority for funding.

Conceptual plan for Hartford's Union Station

According to a post by Steven Higashide for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign blog, if ConnDOT moves fast enough, the project could be eligible for federal economic stimulus funding. Another blog post suggests a deadline in mid-March next year. From Higashide’s post:

There are two main issues facing the commuter rail project. The first is whether a project to add rail service to existing tracks where Amtrak already runs service needs to be studied for two years, as planned. ConnDOT has a further incentive to move quickly because the project could be eligible for federal economic stimulus funding planned for the first half of next year, but only if the project has advanced enough that construction can begin soon after funding is passed.

Second, if ConnDOT builds the project, it has the choice between peak-hour-only service and a “full build” service that would run all day and require double-tracking the line. Gov. Rell and ConnDOT should signal their commitment to a more transit-oriented Connecticut by opting for full build—and if they can get federal dollars for the project, all the better.

Michael Marshall. Photo by R CottoBoth business and civic leaders took turns indicting the culprits of the slow-moving commuter rail project. Complicated bureaucracy, government regulations, poor planning and communication, and lack of political will were all listed among reasons why the project seemed to move sluggishly.

Michael Marshall (pictured), head of asset management at Aetna, described feelings of urgency and frustration with the seeming lack of a methodical way of conceiving and planning growth in the region. He observed that Hartford recently lost two major businesses from its city limits: ING and MetLife. Marshall’s concern, shared by many others in the audience, hinged on whether we can truly depend on an incoherent development plan for the region that appears to include too few answers to the question of transportation for its workforce.

5 Responses to “Civic, Business Leaders in Hartford Urge Speed in Planning Rail”

  1. Herb

    One quick clarification: Wilbur Smith is HQ’d in South Carolina, but the NHHS project is being worked on in their Enfield office.

    That said, at the Springfield meeting on Monday, their presentation indicated that there was essentially no I-91 rush-hour congestion in Springfield and very little in Hartford which shocked me. Sure, we don’t have Boston or NYC levels of congestion here, but I’ve sat in traffic enough times on I-91 through Hartford, Enfield and Longmeadow that I know it’s a significant issue.

    But this is (unfortunately) pretty early in the process so hopefully the folks at W-S will incorporate these comments.

  2. kerri

    Thanks for reporting on this meeting!

  3. twoladiesinwaiting

    Ugh, I would love to see this happen. I frequently take the train south from Hartford, and, rather than drive to New Haven to catch the train, I am willing to adjust my schedule to accommodate the paltry Hartford/New Haven service just so that I can do my part to *use* Union Station. The ability to have viable Hartford/Springfield service would be just a dream. (A dream, of course, that was once a reality. We are so short-sighted.)

    Great article, thank you.

  4. RDeGray

    I believe it would be very productive to have the New Haven – Hartford – Springfield rail line extend directly into Bradley Field rather than having passengers dealing with the transfer of luggage between the proposed Windsor rail station and bus. Tracks already exist to within about 700 feet of the Bradley terminal I believe – of course they need upgrading.

    The concept is not new, many cities already see the virtues of rail directly into airport terminals. We need to me more progressive and think outside of Connecticut and take action to enhance the economies of New England.

    Multimodal/inter-modal transportation systems rule. We have to think of pedestrians, bicycles, autos, rail, boats and air. We are so far behind cities in Europe, Japan and Australia!

  5. Heather Brandon

    A little more follow-up on these hearings and a press conference earlier this week:

    New Haven Register December 10 article
    Connecticut Post (Bridgeport) article this week
    Tri-State Transportation Campaign December 11 blog post, including a link to Tuesday’s press release calling for fast-tracking the commuter rail line

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