The Political Pothole of Connecticut Transportation

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// William Freedberg

On Feb. 3, Mayor Toni Harp’s ARC ’78 entrance into New Haven’s aldermanic chambers was nearly a foregone conclusion. After all, Harp’s distinguished legislative career as both an alder and a state senator — and eventually chair of the state Legislature’s powerful Appropriations Committee — certainly paved the way for the 2014 State of the City Address. During the campaign, her deep roots in New Haven were evident and, with the exception of a microscopic minority, she received the endorsements of New Haven’s entire political establishment.

So eyebrows were raised when Harp, still in her “honeymoon phase” as mayor, chose her address to announce her new priority for New Haven, one that very few were expecting: increasing access to public transportation. She described the issue as an “economics and civil rights” one, and said she would fight for more reliable transportation access for the New Haven public, as well as the expansion of New Haven’s Tweed Airport within two years.

But after the fanfare faded, Harp’s choice seemed less surprising. After all, politicians make transportation projects a part of their policy diet as much as Yalies scoop up steel cut oatmeal during breakfast in the dining halls. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, elected in 2010, proposed building a rail line connecting the Connecticut cities of New Haven and Hartford to Springfield, Mass., as well as an 11-stop busway known as “CT Fastrack” that connects the cities of Hartford and New Britain, all during his first year in office.

However, these transportation projects seem to have a hard time taking off. Harp’s efforts to expand Tweed and the city’s public transit have fallen prey to political realities and insufficient funds, and Gov. Malloy’s New Haven-to-Springfield Line project will have taken as many as six years to build before it is completed in 2016. The Hartford-to-New Britain busway, originally estimated by Connecticut Department of Transportation Director Jim Redeker to be completed in 2014, is now slated for February 2015.

And southwestern Connecticut’s Metro-North Railroad, historically criticized for both timing and safety issues, derailed last December, killing four people and injuring 63. The incident provoked a federal audit of its safety practices.

In light of these problems, for Connecticut as well as New Haven politicians, any transportation project is a good one. As it stands, the status quo hampers both the ability of New Haveners to go about their daily lives, as well as the economic development of the region in general. But an intricate set of political realities may stand in the way of the implementation of the region’s most-needed transportation improvements.

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When I reached Professor Gary Rose, chairman of the Department of Government and Politics at Sacred Heart University, he was in the car. After I waited for him to get through a Merritt Parkway tunnel, the cause for some momentarily spotty cell service, he explained that improving public transportation has been a goal of governors and politicians past and present. And yet, little progress has been made.

“These are not the first people to talk about solving the transportation problem,” Rose said. “Every time somebody runs for governor of the state or for Senate, you get all this talk about fixing the transportation of the state, and the reality is that it’s a very costly endeavor.”
John Hartwell, the vice chair of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council, agrees that the costs of transportation improvements are steep. But he says that, in Connecticut, several steps have been made in the last four years, in spite of the high price tag. He cited the delivery of newly purchased Metro-North rail cars, implementation of the New Haven-to-Springfield rail line and the Hartford-to-New Britain bus systems, as well as Connecticut’s elected officials’ efforts on the federal level to revamp the state’s transportation facilities.

On April 7, Gov. Malloy announced his request of $603 million from federal Hurricane Sandy relief funds. The money, if granted, will go toward an $800 million combined project of repairing a Norwalk bridge, improving Metro-North’s communications systems and updating the New Haven rail yard’s power transmission system. However, there has been some degree of concern over the ambition required to modernize Metro-North and mitigate its current safety concerns.

A Regional Planning Association study released in January estimated that fully modernizing Metro-North will require $3.6 billion worth of improvements. Then, on March 14, the Federal Railway Administration released the results of “Operation Deep Dive,” an audit of the railroad’s safety measures that exposed some troublesome practices. According to the report, the rail line suffered from “an overemphasis on on-time performance, an ineffective Safety Department and poor safety culture, and an ineffective training program.”

Hartwell stressed that, when it came to the Metro-North Railroad, state officials were genuinely invested in improving its shortfalls.

“These are not political tools,” he said. “[Connecticut elected officials] are there and they are working on our behalf, it just takes a lot of time.”

But Rose cautioned that politicians aren’t pursuing transportation projects with wholly sincere motives. According to Rose, politicians are well aware of these efforts’ little chance of swift passage, but they continue to promote them anyway. Why? “To give people the impression that you’re a reformer,” he said.

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New Haven City Hall officials are well aware of the complications — and liabilities — that come with the process of improving public transit in the Elm City.

“As a former legislator, the mayor understands the time it takes to formally plan these projects and will keep working to expedite approval and line up resources moving forward,” Laurence Grotheer, the mayor’s communications director, said.

School of Management professor Douglas Rae, who served as the city’s chief economic administrator from 1990 to 1991 under Mayor John Daniels, said that city administrators face a difficult environment for accomplishing anything, let alone issues related to transportation. When attempting to change the status quo in nearly all organizations, “the inertia forces favor very small, incremental change or no change at all.” This is especially true in the case of the Tweed New Haven Airport, whose fate is beholden to a number of political municipalities, which “is like running in the mud.”

Harp’s meetings with New Haven’s transportation volunteer boards have also been few and far between. Carol Nardini, a member of the Greater New Haven Transit District, said she was not aware of any meetings between Harp and the committee designed to pursue the transportation policies, nor had she spoken to the mayor herself about it since Harp took office in January. Don Dimenstein, the head of the Greater New Haven Transit District, declined to comment.

Interviews with New Haven’s legislative body did not give the impression that they have been deeply involved in the issue, either. Ward 2 Alder Frank Douglass, who chairs the Community Development Committee on the Board of Alders, said he had not been part of such a conversation during this term and could not comment. Ward 26 Alder Darryl Brackeen Jr. maintained that transportation is an issue that, if tackled correctly, could positively affect many city neighborhoods — namely the Hill, Westville, Newhallville and Fair Haven. But he added that it has yet to be given the full attention of the Board it deserves.

“I must admit, I am the only person who has posted any resolution considering transportation this term,” he said.

However, Brackeen said it would be “brash” to paint his resolution, which has not yet gained traction on the Board of Alders, as the full measure of current efforts to improve New Haven transportation. Mayor Harp’s appointing of Doug Hausladen ’04 to the position of director of traffic and parking, he said, was a clear indication that she would not be an aloof mayor when it came to transportation. In fact, Hausladen has already been pushing to equip all CT Transit buses with GPSes, an improvement expected to be fully implemented by 2015.

“I consider him one of the most important appointments alone,” Brackeen said. “I think she really trusts him with a lot of responsibility.”

But regarding New Haven’s share in transportation policies on the state level, Brackeen is less enthused.

“Our state legislators have been doing a pretty good job of trying to make that a priority, but that’s pretty tough in this economic environment,” he said. “On the state level I definitely think more can be done.”

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It’s no secret that Connecticut is steeped in a tough economic environment. When the New Haven-to-Springfield rail line and the Hartford-to-New Britain busway were proposed, the state had amassed a budget deficit of $3.6 billion. Nevertheless, the Malloy administration prioritized these projects — costing $567 million and $365.6 million to complete, respectively — and pursued them relentlessly. Gov. Malloy said at the time that the CT Fastrack project would bring “long-term economic growth and development to the corridor [between Hartford and New Britain].” In the case of the rail line, he “personally wrote letters, made phone calls and met with various federal officials, including President Obama and U.S. Transportation Secretary LaHood,” according to a May 9, 2011 press release.

But these projects’ merit has been questioned, especially considering the transit needs cited by many in New Haven.

Rae of SOM, for one, does not find either one particularly compelling. He said that Springfield and Hartford “have a set of problems that are different from New Haven’s” since they are not part of either the Greater New York or the Greater Boston Region.

Asked whether the project was being pursued primarily for political reasons, Rae responded, “I would definitely agree with that.”
Rae also cited the example of the Hartford-to-New Britain busway as particularly egregious, given that it will cost over $500 million, despite the fact that it has “no demonstrated demand.”

However, Mark Abraham, executive director of the New Haven public information nonprofit DataHaven, said that the New Haven-Springfield line has the potential to increase Connecticut’s economic growth. The current national trend is to build “more compact, blockable communities” that are “a more sustainable solution … for the long run,” he said, of which developing areas adjacent to train stations would be a good example. In New Haven’s case, not only would it take advantage of the city’s “critical mass of transportation,” but the rail line would also distribute New Haven’s economic firepower across all of Connecticut.

He did admit that expanding the New Haven bus system instead of the rail line would “service a lot more people … in terms of transit.”
The mayor’s ability to lobby the state Legislature to provide funding for this project, as well as expediting the extension of Tweed’s runway, will likely rely on Toni Harp’s clout in Hartford. During her mayoral campaign, she pointed to her record in Hartford as proof of why she made a better candidate than her general election opponent, Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10.

Grotheer said the mayor remains dedicated to maintaining New Haven’s influence in Hartford. “She communicates regularly with the governor,” he said, “on any number of projects.”

Sometimes, however, Grotheer cautioned, a personal relationship is not enough.

“Some of the moving pieces in these transportation project … there’s funding available, but you can’t apply the funds until the project is planned and approved and engineered, and sometimes that happens more quickly than other times,” he said.

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Somewhere along the Merritt Parkway, Rose and I started talking cars. He said fundamental transportation reform — the sort that would give the American populace incentive to stop using cars as their primary mode of transportation — will not be possible even if Connecticut’s budgetary concerns are solved.

“Mass transit in the United States has never really broadly been a popular proposal,” he said. “Connecticut residents are certainly no exception to that.”

America’s “individualistic” culture, he added, was different from other countries where Rose had spent time, like Germany. In countries like these, he said, where more emphasis is placed on collective achievement, people are more likely to engage on issues of mass transit.

Rae agreed with this characterization, saying cars have been ingrained in American culture “ever since Henry Ford sold 15 million Model T’s.” However, he said that air travel and public transit systems in major cities remain the most practical, and thus politically viable options.
Given this reality, Rose concluded that Connecticuters should prepare for their elected officials to discuss transportation more, especially during election years — but not necessarily with tangible results.

“I guarantee you when we have our debate between Dan Malloy and whoever is the Republican nominee, I guarantee you we will hear about mass transit,” he said. “It’s just one of those issues people acknowledge at this point — we know it will be discussed, but very little will happen.”

Contact DAVID BLUMENTHAL at
david.blumenthal@yale.edu.

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