Posted on Wednesday, December 10 2008 by Robert Cotto
Ralph 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.
Despite 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.
Much 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.
Although 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.
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.
Most 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?”
Cynthia 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.
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.
Both 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.