New Haven, Stamford Enter Streetcar Wars with Proposed Station-to-Downtown Links

» For two Connecticut cities, urban rail could provide improved connections.

Considering the number of American locales considering how to fund new streetcar lines, you’d think the U.S. Department of Transportation had set aside an unlimited pot of money for the purpose. The truth, of course, is that while Washington has begun making down payments on such lines from Dallas to Detroit, there is no long-term source of cash for the mode. And there are far more cities competing to get the money that is available than there are cities that will actually win it.

Nonetheless, places like Connecticut’s New Haven and Stamford are continuing to push forward with their proposals. Each has contracted out with consultant URS to evaluate potential routes for new streetcar lines, under the assumption that an investment in this type of transportation will induce expanded economic development in inner-city areas and increase public transportation mode share.

Both New Haven and Stamford have for years been studying the possibility of introducing streetcars along roads in their downtown areas, though neither has earmarked specific funds for the purpose. A relatively transit-friendly state administration, already pushing a bus rapid transit project in Hartford and an improved commuter rail line between New Haven and Springfield, Massachusetts, could play an important role in identifying capital funds for the projects. The State of Connecticut runs the bus system in both cities.

Stamford was awarded $16 million earlier this month from the U.S. DOT for the construction of a downtown busway, but neither it nor New Haven has thus far received even planning funds for new urban rail transit from the Obama Administration.

Yet for both cities, that’s an exciting possibility. The primary goal of a streetcar would be to connect each respective intercity rail station with both the downtown business district and proposed new development. This fits in with the preferred federal policy of prioritizing intermodal connections in every new transportation project.

According to initial plans (themselves an update of a proposal from last year), New Haven would build a three-mile line from Union Station south of the central Green, past the Yale-New Haven Hospital and City Hall, and part of the way up the Yale Science Hill and into the East Rock neighborhood. Reaching a relatively dense population of 39,000 people, this system would require just three vehicles to run at ten-minute frequencies — limiting initial capital costs. Future routes, increasing the streetcar network’s reach to eight or nine miles, could extend into the neighboring suburban towns of Hamden and West Haven. A direct connection to Yale’s Old and Central Campuses does not appear to be on the city’s agenda, potentially limiting student ridership.

Stamford proposes to build a $129 million, five-mile system extending between the South End neighborhood, the Stamford Transportation Center (the busiest rail station in the state), downtown, and Bull’s Head. Like New Haven, a streetcar investment in Stamford could significantly increase the number of people using transit to get to and from the intercity train stations; both cities have very frequent service on the MTA Metro-North system to New York City as well as hourly Amtrak connections (including Acela “high-speed” service) to points north and south. In addition, New Haven boasts a lightly used commuter rail line called Shore Line East that extends along the coast towards Old Saybrook.

Neither Stamford nor New Haven have finalized their plans — though that’s not necessarily a requirement for federal funding at the moment. Even if they’re able to get past local opposition to the idea, both will have to clarify local support for the projects before anyone in Washington agrees to advance the funds to pay for the lines. Final results from both studies should be available for evaluation by the end of this year.

But each has the advantage of being able to argue that the streetcar line will serve a major section of the city marked for new development. Stamford has a massive redevelopment project called Harbor Point in the works in its South End that will dramatically increase the size of the part of the city that is walkable and dense. Meanwhile, New Haven is planning both the construction of a large new community college complex downtown and the replacement of Route 34 — currently a highway — with an entirely new neighborhood; both projects will be directly adjacent to streetcar stops.

The specifics have to be worked out, but for the future of both of these medium-sized cities, a streetcar could provide a useful impetus for continued growth of the city center as well as opening up improved transit connections between intercity rail stations and downtown. With monetary help from the federal government, that could be great news for either of these cities, but first they’ve got to get in line.

15 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Stamford

    Stamford’s streetcar study was funded under its previous mayor, Dan Malloy, who is now running for governor. The new mayor, Michael Pavia, slashed funding in the engineering and planning departments, laying off many of the folks who would push this plan to the next level. I don’t see anything happening in Stamford for several years at least.
    In contrast, the New Haven streetcar plan has the support of its mayor and a planning staff who have made mobility a central priority.

  • I skimmed quickly but saw no mention of reserved guideway. I presume this is one of those unimportant details that will be worked out later.

    Of course, it’s the most important detail of all – far more important than anything else – but streetcar fairy dust advocates continue to look askance at the idea that commuters are fairly logical beings who won’t relish riding an immobile bus.

  • Both routes are complex, featuring multiple turns and one-way pairs. In addition, in New Haven’s case, the service provided is not the best; it’s much easier to add more commuter service to State Street, which is closer to downtown, than to build a new streetcar connecting to Union Station.

  • Joe

    A direct connection to Yale’s Old and Central Campuses does not appear to be on the city’s agenda, potentially limiting student ridership

    I don’t think that’s the case. The map you provided clearly provides a stop at the Green, and the Old Campus directly abuts New Haven’s Green. If student’s aren’t willing to walk 200 feet from their dorm rooms to the middle of the Green, then it’s pointless to worry more about it.

  • Walter

    New Haven missed the boat on a reserved guideway when it (more likely the towns of Hamden and Cheshire) allowed the old Farminton Canal rail line to be turned into a biketrail into the suburbs. Apparently there was a proposal in the 70s to fit city buses with hi-rail gear so they could run up the old track into the suburbs, but it went nowhere.

    New Haven as a whole is very dense and walkable and so a streetcar system would do pretty well, even if it has to share colonial era streets with cars. Stamford’s downtown, on the other hand, is downright dangerous for pedestrians and is really a giant office park rather than a true downtown.

    Nevertheless, Yale has a huge say in New Haven and so if they want this built, it will be built.

  • Andrew

    While the State Street station is closer to downtown, the volume of passenger traffic through Union Station is a lot heavier than the volume through the State St station (there are only 2 or 3 Metro-North trains that run through to State St, while all the rest of the services terminate at Union Station.)

    Shore Line East service terminates at State St, but there are many times more Metro-North passengers than Shore Line passengers. As someone who went to school in New Haven and has traveled to both New York and points east via rail, I’d definitely opt for the streetcar to Union Station (leaving the entire question of its viability aside.)

    • I know most Metro-North trains terminate at Union Station. What I’m asking is why New Haven doesn’t pay Metro-North to just run more trains to State Street. Is commuter rail so expensive to operate in the US that building a streetcar from scratch is cheaper?

      • Steve

        Physical limitations. Expanding State Street to accommodate Metro North traffic would be extremely costly if possible at all. At least that’s my understanding. Suffice to say that it’s capital cost, not operating cost, that’s holding this idea up. Ideally EVERY MNRR train would go to State Street.

        • If it’s a space issue, then it’s no big deal. Commuter trains can turn around very quickly, on the order of 2 minutes. But if it’s difficult and the train must be cleaned, then 10-15 minutes would be feasible and acceptable: then there would be room for every off-peak train to go to State Street, as well as for many peak trains providing reasonable frequency.

  • Michael

    I agree with Alon–I’ve often wondered why State St station hasn’t been better developed to accomodate MetroNorth train services on a more regular basis. If the city weren’t so keen on the major redevelopment of Rt 34, it would be interesting to have a streetcar system serve Chapel St and thus State St station, particularly as 360 State seems to be rather heavily promoted at the moment. On the other hand, the streetcar network could provide a useful (if potentially controversial) way to consider the city’s socioeconomic divides. I don’t know what the long-term plans are, but some of New Haven’s sharpest divisions occur along its major mass transit routes (eg Whalley or Dixwell out towards the northwestern suburbs).

    Joe, the middle of the green may be only 200 ft from Phelps Gate, which is one entrance to Old Campus; on the other hand, most Yale students live much farther away, some a good ten to fifteen minutes away from the Green. Yes, it’s possible to walk to the Green, but if I were to use a streetcar to get from the station, it would likely be at night, and trudging across even half the Green is not inviting. This applies in any direction coming from Union Station. Mind, Yale’s free transit service does a pretty good job of getting you to the station, so perhaps undergrad students are not a primary target.

  • Native Nutmegger

    The New Haven streetcar should do well right now; New Haven is fairly dense and walkable. But I noticed one problem with the long range New Haven proposals: the Route 34 line should really extend another half mile beyond it’s proposed terminus to reach the Yale Bowl/stadium/athletic facilities. A Yale Bowl connection line would eventually make it easy to take a future New Haven/Springfield commuter train to Union Station, then switch to a streetcar to go to the baseball or football games. Traffic leaving these games is a nightmare.

    The Stamford Streetcar could do well, but they’ll need some local zoning changes to make the area into a more walkable, vibrant community to see good ridership. But, this drawback is also Stamford’s strength: by incorporating the streetcar line as the cornerstone of a massive economic development push in the city, they can get an effective transit line AND a revitalized, vibrant urban core.

    After way too many years of car-centric urban planning in CT, it’s nice to see some diversification and serious thought put into public transit systems.

  • Steve

    If New Haven’s is a seed, with an eye toward a more comprehensive streetcar network, this startup system should definitely be run at no fare. These are very short distances, and their ridership would probably double if they didn’t charge people to use it. I’m thinking, for example large numbers of trips from East Rock to Downtown and back. Less than two miles.

  • Walter

    The State Street station is located east of Union Station, which is to say east of the huge yard and maintanance facility behind Union Station. It’s also located on Amtrak’s line east to Boston and north to Springfield. The planned commuter rail to Springfield will use the station, but Metro North and Amtrak probably agree it’s too onerous to move so many trains from the yard to State Street without delaying Amtrak’s trains. Besides, Union Station is quite beautiful and has many services and bus routes to offer customers.

    A better idea would be to run the streetcar line down Union Avenue, which turns into State Street, then turn toward the Green on Chapel Street then turn onto Church to head toward Whitney. State Street in this part of town could frankly use a development impetus, as it’s filled mainly with surface parking lots for people going to jury duty downtown. And a line here could potentially expand to the Fair Haven neighborhood.

    Hopefully the city has dusted off the plans from it’s old streetcar network, as it was quite large, with one trolley even traveling to Waterbury. A fixed guideway could even be found by getting rid of the parking spaces on one side of the street in most places downtown.

  • George

    An underground subway would work better in Stamford. Bedford and Summer streets are narrow and congested – the train should be underground. Stamford is the fastest-growing city in New England, with an official population of 120,000 and an unofficial population of 150,000.

    There is no reason for the Stamford line to end so early at Bull’s Head. The areas north of Bull’s Head – along High Ridge and Long Ridge roads – are dense with housing, shopping and office parks holding thousands and thousands of jobs. In order to be a success, Stamford’s subway ought to run at least as far north as Merritt Parkway.

    Long-term, further lines ought to be built to the West Side and East Side and along Cove Road, all of which are densely populated and have a high population of lower-income transit-dependent residents.

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