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Trains and “Greater Hartford”

Posted by whforums on December 29, 2008

So, I’ve been thinking about trains lately.  And I’m not the only one – although this particular post has been kicking around in my head for a while, a lot of other local blogs have written about the topic already.  In fact, trains are the transportation trend of the moment.

For 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 through here).  West Hartford’s own Representative Chris McCluskey has seconded the notion, arguing that a line that connects Springfield-Hartford-New Haven makes more sense than the proposed New Britain-Hartford Busway, not in small part because it would provide Hartford (and the residents of the West Hartford he represents) easier access to New York.  Over at Real Hartford, a similar argument has been made for investing in train infrastructure.

What I find particularly alluring about the proposal I’ve read about the Springfield-Hartford-New Haven line is the way it regionalizes not only the service, but our cities.  One of the great strengths of New England (and one of its great weaknesses, too) is its provincialism – because we are a band of “small cities” (we are Hartford, Providence, Springfield, Worcester, New Haven, etc.) with definite senses of identity, we too often limit ourselves within those cities and identities.  What rail has the potential to do – especially if the trains move fast enough – is to unite our small cities while still protecting (if not further defining) their provincial identities.  Because such rail would lead to an inherent reconsideration of the geographical relationships between these places (a shrinking region), we would also likely see a significant reconsideration of the social and economic relationships between these places (in other words, it would be a “naturally imposed” regionalization).  Let’s face it – does Hartford’s economy stand a better chance of rebounding on its own, or does it stand a better chance of rebounding through an alliance with Springfield, New Haven and beyond?  The answer to the question seems self evident, and the Springfield-Hartford-New Haven line promises a greater inflow of people (and cash) into each city.

When I had first started thinking about rail – before reading the stuff that others have written – I have to admit my thought process was a lot more short sighted.  I was thinking of light rail that could serve to connect the center of Hartford to it sprawl in a rapid “off-road” kind of way.  I was imagining a train that ran with consistent and fairly constant service to New Hartford in the west and Bolton or even Mansfield (to connect UCONN to Hartford) in the east.  My thought was that this would provide a convenient way to cut down on traffic congestion in greater Hartford while also making it easier for everyone to get to Hartford – to make Hartford not just an economic hub, but a thriving downtown destination not seen since our Hartford Whalers salad days (ha!).  Such rail could also lead to significant new development along the line itself while fostering regional solutions to local and regional problems (it would be a way to link municipalities through transportation, just as Mayor Slifka, along with the mayors of East Hartford and Middletown, are trying to link the needs of their “small cities” politically). While the Springfield-Hartford-New Haven line certainly offers more significant economic opportunity and advantage, the success of such a line (and, once the economy turns around, newly rising gas prices) may make such a “local line” seem more and more palatable.

Rail, of course, comes with its own expenses.  I don’t know how much it costs to lay or lease rail (I’m sure it’s not cheap), I don’t know how much a train would cost, and I certainly don’t know how much money it would suck from the state budget in terms of annual and long term maintenance.  Stations and parking would need to be built. And despite the narrow-minded idealism of what I’ve just written, I certainly would agree with anyone who argues that any local or macro-local transportation solutions must be intermodal (and, since I think we all agree on the importance of intermodal transportation, why on earth would trains not be one of our significant “modes”)?  Fact is, nouveau-rail is an idea that’s of its moment both locally and nationally.  As Obama promises funding for national infrastructure improvements, it seems to me that if we don’t get on the train “train” now, the next scheduled stop will be long in the making.

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