The DOT’s car culture is a self-fulfilling prophecy
It is time to look beyond cars and motor vehicles
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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