Transit planners hope Mayor Malloy shapes Gov. Malloy

Transit planners and advocates admired Dannel P. Malloy as the mayor of Stamford, and they are optimistic about him as governor, despite–or perhaps because of–his inability to find the right transportation commissioner nearly four months after taking office.

“I’m glad he’s taking time. We’ve had so many commissioners over the last half-dozen years, let’s finally get the right one,” said Floyd Lapp, executive director of the Southwestern Regional Planning Agency.

Lapp was a panelist Tuesday at a forum in Hartford on the development of affordable, energy-efficient homes near mass transit, such as the high-speed rail Malloy is promoting through central Connecticut.

Malloy was not represented at the forum sponsored by the Partnership  for Strong Communities, but most or all of the panelists had dealt with him as mayor, including the keynote speaker, developer and planner Jonathan F.P. Rose.

Jonathan Rose

Jonathan Rose

The Jonathan Rose Companies was the developer of Metro Green Apartments, an energy-efficient, transit-oriented development, or TOD in the jargon of planners, near the Stamford train station.

At a ribbon cutting in September 2009, Malloy stood with Rose and Timothy Bannon, the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority executive who now serves as his chief of staff.

Lapp praised Stamford and Norwalk as the two cities in his planning region that have embraced the wisdom of linking transit to development. Rose said transit-oriented development is good business.

“It’s where the market wants to be,” Rose said.

But the forum took place against a backdrop in Washington of diminishing federal funds for high-speed rail and urban development initiatives. A strong push from the governor will be needed to continue to keep the rail projects moving, panelists said.

“Good old-fashioned leadership in my opinion can overcome scarcity in resources and apathy in people,” Lapp said.

One of Malloy’s first major transportation decisions as governor was to back the construction of the New Britain-to-Hartford busway, which proponents hope will one day tie into a high-speed rail line from Springfield to Hartford to New Haven to New York.

The project has skeptics who question the cost and potential ridership, but none were evident Tuesday.

“Imagine New Britain 35 minutes from Manhattan through a combination of train and bus,” said Curt Johnson, the program director for the Connecticut Fund for the Environment.

Connecticut’s legislature approved $5 million in planning money for transit-oriented development in 2006, but another panelist, Kate Slevin of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said the money was not released until Malloy became governor.

In an interview later Tuesday, Malloy said new investments in rail and other mass transit make little sense without comprehensive planning and a link to development.

“I’m certainly going to have a transit-oriented development approach to make sure we maximize the rail investment we will be making in the next few years,” he said.

Malloy said he is looking for a national leader in transportation to be the commissioner of transportation, but he feels no pressure to move quickly with James Redeker as acting commissioner. Redeker has 30 years experience in mass transit in New Jersey.

“I’ve had two good acting commissioners,” Malloy said. “This is a position where I don’t want to take the wrong person.”

Several panelists and audience members complained Tuesday that the DOT still is not an advocate of transit-oriented development or the best development partner. Malloy has said he wants a commissioner who can complete a transition that began under his predecessor.

“He wants to be very careful about who it is, somebody that has a national reputation because transportation shapes land development, and land development shapes transportation,” Lapp said. “And he recognizes that we need somebody with a transit background.”

Malloy said he had one candidate he was seriously interested in, but “for a number of reasons, it didn’t work out.”