For too long, state policy has treated traffic as a liquid: there is a fixed number of drivers and a fixed number of transit users. We know, however, that traffic behaves more like a gas; investment in highways and parking induces more driving. Conversely, full-throated investment in transit combined with frequent, high-quality operations spurs people to use it. Our transportation decisions need to start reflecting that.

Unfortunately, the Connecticut Department of Transportation remains wedded to investment decisions that prioritize private vehicle use instead of transit. The chosen priorities outlined in the draft transportation bill show that too many Connecticut officials cannot grasp that bad service decisions and car traffic form two halves of a vicious circle.

In a disappointing turn, the second New Haven Union Station garage lives on.  This is despite that, after $750 million was invested into the railroad to Springfield, the schedule still contains several two-hour gaps and a four-hour gap in northbound service during the midday. The  hourly base service that was promised for the whole day is only present at rush hour.

Consistent, frequent base service comes with little to no marginal cost over peak service because it is easier – -and therefore cheaper– to schedule crews. Hourly service would become more legible for users; they would have to memorize how many minutes past the hour their train departs their station and that’s it. Legibility and frequency spur ridership.

Instead of spending $80 million on additional New Haven parking,  Connecticut can use those resources to add a lot more capacity to the Hartford Line. According to the current (conservative) schedule, a round trip from New Haven to Springfield should take under four hours, so providing one train per hour should require just four trainsets plus a spare.

Completing the double track will ensure more reliable service; the costs can be kept to a few million per mile. Diesel multiple unit cars, which accelerate and brake better than locomotive-hauled trains, run about $1.5 million apiece in the first world, and would reduce travel times considerably. Those improvements should permit enough scheduled service to spur enough ridership to render a second New Haven garage useless. The additional passengers whose cars a garage would accommodate (around 750, assuming most drive alone) would fit comfortably in a few Hartford Line trains.

A similar car-centric approach is clear on the massive I-84 viaduct replacement project in Hartford. ConnDOT has budgeted $5 billion to rebuild a two-mile section of highway, a staggering sum by any international standard. Madrid, for example, buried its M-30 ring road for circa $200 million/mile. Even if the buried highway cost were more in line with world standards, the funds would still be better spent on a combination of a surface boulevard and the rail improvements outlined in this article. An at-grade road–a low hundreds of millions of dollars project–would almost certainly distribute the traffic better than a highway, as most cars are travelling to or from Hartford, and free up more land than the state’s preferred alternative would.

A few more hundreds of millions should accomplish re-signing today’s I-691 and I-91 as jointly I-84/I-691 and I-84/I-91 respectively and building a few ramps. Another few hundred million dollar would furnish a proper train station in Hartford, electrification of the entire line to Springfield for even better performance than attainable with any diesels (The first world average lands at $3-4 million/mile.), and buying 30 or so new electric multiple unit cars (again, around $1.5 million apiece) for half-hourly service frequency.

Connecticut infrastructure is in sorry shape. ConnDOT´s fixation on endless road investments and extreme inefficiency has contributed significantly to our current predicament. It is time to look beyond cars and motor vehicles. Transportation investments should focus on efficiency—in design and in execution, not on treating public transit as an afterthought while doubling down on more roads and parking.

Robert Hale lives in New Haven.

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4 Comments

  1. CTDOT does not prioritize highways over mass transit. Almost two decades ago, CTDOT began shifting its emphasis toward a more rounded approach to transportation which is seen in the billions of dollars it has invested in mass transit since. It takes years for that shift to be seen but you can clearly see the investments being made today.

    Metro North’s New Haven line has seen significant investment in upgrading its catenary power system, new M-8 rail cars, two new train stations and a new enlarged rail and maintenance yard in New Haven and improvements to rail maintenance facilities in Bridgeport and Stamford. New or upgraded rail bridges have also been built along the line including the $1 billion Walk Bridge in Norwalk currently under construction. Service on Shoreline East has also significantly improved with a number of new stations and upgraded rail cars and new ones on the way.

    CTrail service on the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line has cost hundreds of millions of dollars in track, station and rail cars for it. The state has smartly begun the service slowly in order to build ridership just like they did back when they began Shoreline East service. They have entered into an agreement with Amtrak which owns the line and already has train service on it to share riders. This is smart and efficient use of funds to best grow the service. As ridership on the line grows the state has plans to add stations and service.

    The state has also invested almost $600 million in CTfastrak (the New Britain-Hartford busway) which is serving thousands of riders each day. Despite what some negative and ill-informed politicians think and say, ridership on the line is exceeding projections.

    Finally money allocated for highway improvements cannot be shifted to mass transit. Federal funding for highways comes from the Federal Highway Administration while funding for transit comes from the Federal Transit Administration, two different agencies within the Federal government. Funds do not transfer between them. Despite what people think, the majority of people in our state rely on cars for transportation. That is not going to change no matter how good transit service becomes. We cannot ignore the needs of our highway system in favor of transit particularly when the majority of the transportation funding comes from the gas tax imposed on drivers using those highways. They will not tolerate that.

  2. Mr. Hale is exactly right. No one rides a train or bus that doesn’t reliably run, no one walks on a sidewalk that doesn’t exist and no one bikes in a bike lane that isn’t protected, or at least clearly marked. Build this kind of infrastructure, and watch the modal shift from cars to other modes of transportation in the same way building more lanes of highway brings more traffic and congestion.

  3. Only liberal/democrat thinking comes up with the idea that if we invest in roads people will use the roads thus we should stop investing in roads. At some point the increase in roads will keep up with the demand. Public transit even in major cities is slow, unreliable, and expensive compared to private cars. In CT most public transit will never be profitable. Maybe instead of treating cars like enemies we should fix our broken highway system. People who want to move beyond cars ought to move to Manhattan.

  4. Excellent written piece. Overall, the state roadway system is bloated, not to mention poorly aligned from way back when – limited access highways should not have been put through the middle of biggest cities (killed vibrant areas and reduced taxable land in cities), yet this is the world we inherited. But while trips to suburban and rural places will undoubtedly continue to be done with automobiles, more of the trips to our bigger cities (especially their downtowns) – some of the biggest economic engines in the state – ought to be more focused on the transit. Use the train to get to downtown Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, Stamford, Norwalk, even New London, etc. Increase the train service frequency in order to make train travel a more attractive option. (Also price use of the highway (user fee – tolls) to the actual cost tied to maintenance of the highways. If one lives near Meriden, for example, and is going to ultimately take a MM train down to NYC, then in a well-balanced transportation system they’d be able to get on a higher-frequency Hartford Line train in Meriden and then transfer/connect to a MN train in NHV, not drive to New Haven to park. Oversupplying parking, under-pricing driving, and under-valuing our cities and transit (including local bus service) have led us to where we are today. We have to change course (faster) if want to really be economically competitive (not to mention deal with this climate change stuff). Lastly, automobile travel is a much less safe form of travel compared to transit — the more trips that can nudged to transit the safer.

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