Hartford Wins $10 Million for Smart Growth

A federal grant of $10 million is set to help Hartford become a city of bikers, walkers, and public transportation users instead of drivers.

The grant, announced last week, is part of the TIGER program begun by the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2009. Several dozen cities and towns across the country, out of hundreds of applicants were awarded a total of $500 million for projects following smart-growth principles.

The city plans to use most of the money to improve access from Union Station to Main Street and Asylum and Pearl streets downtown. That way more people can take the train to Hartford and easily get to their nearby office — potentially dramatically changing the fabric of downtown.

“It’s going to look a lot greener, it’s going to be better lit, it’s going to accommodate the buses in a friendlier way,” said Mayor Pedro Segarra of the city center after the project is slated to be finished in the summer of 2014. “So it’s going to look quite different.”

According to the city’s application for the grant, 110,000 people work in downtown Hartford each day. About 80,000 of those jobs are located just a half-mile from Union Station, but anyone would agree the city is car-centric. The key to encourage people to ditch their cars is to make riding the train an attractive option.

“[Union Station] is really the gateway to the city,” said Steven Higadishe, who works with the transportation advocacy group Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “And if it’s not clear where to go [once you get off the train], if it’s confusing, it’s not a trip that you really want to take. But if it’s safe, if it’s present, if it’s understandable, then people get a really good impression of the city.”

The city asked for $13.5 million. Segarra said he is committed to raising the extra $3.5 million Hartford didn’t get from public and private local sources.

In its application, the city wanted $3.44 million to renovate Union Station and the area immediately surrounding it. That would include making bus stops nicer places to wait, improving street-lighting, and improving signage so pedestrians know what to do once they’ve left the train station.

$2.95 million would go toward “greening” Bushnell Park North by making some of the same adjustments, along with narrowing the roadways and adding bike lanes to calm traffic and encourage walking and bikings.

The roadways, crosswalks, bus lanes and bus stops on Asylum and Pearl Streets will be enhanced by restriping, repaving and better signage at a cost of $6.45 million. And a final $5.2 million would go to similar improvements on Main Street, along with reworking bus routes so it would be easier to go straight from the train station to downtown. The application proposes a new shuttle service between the station and the convention center.

Officials hope these improvements will reduce the number of cars and the demand for more parking, which employers tell them is a major reason they’re unable to hire more people for their downtown Hartford offices.

And, the goal is to revitalize downtown Hartford and spark more economic development there. More pedestrians and bikers could encourage shops, cafes and other retail businesses to locate in the area.

“A lot of people want to live in communities where they can walk to work, where they can go to the museums, go to the theater, go to the parks, and basically walk or bike [to get there],” Segarra said.

City officials say the TIGER grant syncs well with other smart-growth and transportation projects in Hartford, including the Hartford to New Britain busway, the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield high-speed commuter rail.

A few other cities in Connecticut have received TIGER grants, including Stamford for improving its train station, and New Haven for its Downtown Crossing project. But TIGER, which started as part of the federal stimulus program, has been controversial on the federal level, with some members of Congress proposing to eliminate it next year. The Department of Transportation gave out $1.5 billion to communities in 2009; that has dwindled to half a million this year.