Commuter Rail Connecticut Intercity Rail New Haven

Connecticut, Intent on Improving In-State Rail Connections, Plans Bond Release

» New Haven-Hartford-Springfield corridor would get significantly improved service, opening up possibility of Inland Route New York-Boston trains.

As the competition for the rapidly diminishing federal funds for intercity rail heats up, states are apparently taking seriously Washington’s call for increasing local spending on such projects. The $10.5 billion thus far allocated by the Congress for this transportation mode may encourage state and municipal governments to devote much more of their own funds to the program. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Transportation — at least behind the scenes — seems to be informing states that the only way they’ll receive future grants is by committing some of their own budgets to new tracks and rolling stock.

This is the case in Connecticut, which received only $40 million in the first distribution of funds this past January. Governor Jodi Rell (R), who is in her last year in office, wants more, so she has asked the State Bond Commission to release $260 million for the reconstruction of the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield (MA) corridor, which runs roughly north-south through the center of the state. Connecticut hopes to bring in an additional $220 million from Washington later this year, enough to fund the first phase of the project.

The announcement ups the ante for other states that want the federal government to chip in for their own rail programs.

Connecticut’s project, which has been discussed for more than a decade, would double-track the entire corridor between New Haven and Springfield, a 62-mile Amtrak-owned line that is currently used by half a dozen Amtrak intercity trains a day. Much of the second track was torn out in the mid-1990s.

Stations would be upgraded to high-level platforms at each of the nine existing and three new stations. Once the improvements are completed in 2015, commuter trains would run every thirty minutes during peak periods and every hour at other times. Operations would be substantially bettered: Average train speeds are expected to rise from 40 mph to around 60 mph; daily round-trip trains to Hartford and Springfield would increase from six to 25 or more; travel times from Hartford to New York would decrease from 2h46 to 2h09, and travelers will be able to get to Worcester, Massachusetts from Penn Station in 3h49, a considerable improvement.

The funding that the state received in January already ensures the double tracking of ten miles of the corridor. Electric operations, necessary for direct Metro-North or Amtrak Northeast Regional service into Manhattan, would cost another $100 million and will not be included in the current project.

A 2005 report on the project suggested that the program would only attract about 3,000 daily riders, but that estimate may be low; the study claimed that only eight people would ride out of New Haven Union Station during the morning peak hour — this is a definite underestimate.

Even so, Governor Rell’s claim thatthis is the most exciting mass transit project ever in the state of Connecticut” is too exuberant: The New Haven Line Metro-North trains from New Haven, Bridgeport, and Stamford to New York’s Grand Central will remain far bigger ridership generators and fulfill a more important function in the state’s commuting patterns. And it could be argued that support for streetcar lines in the state could play a bigger role in determining the future of the state’s cities.

But in terms of improving the national rail network, the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield project is a fantastic investment. If the entire Inland Route is electrified (the route runs from New Haven north to Springfield, and then east to Boston), it could provide direct and vital access from Central Connecticut and Massachusetts to the large Boston and New York metropolitan areas. Intercity trains running along the line from New Haven to Boston will increase in number to six daily. Connecticut’s project will leave room for the future installation of overhead catenary.

In addition, the improvements along the New Haven-Springfield route, in conjunction with the realignment of service to Burlington, Vermont partly funded by the federal government in January, will radically alter the ability of northern New Englanders to get into New York City. Future funding will go towards connecting the line to Montréal, allowing trains from Boston to the Canadian city. Amtrak service to White River Junction from Penn Station will run in 5h32, compared to 7h36 today. In addition, the opening of full double-tracked corridor will ensure more reliable commutes. The Vermonter, which runs on the line now, has an on-time performance of only 84%.

Though the upgraded line does not fit anyone’s definition of high-speed rail, it is exactly the type of improved, fast-enough service that will allow more Americans to take the train without sacrificing their time compared to driving in a car. Connecticut’s decision to implement both commuter rail and improved intercity rail (the latter mandated by the fact that the U.S. grant program is explicitly not for commuter rail) will mean that new operations will be used by a whole variety of users, not be confined to a single purpose.

Image above: Hartford rail station, from Flickr user Mamorital (cc)

Connecticut New Haven Stamford

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.

Connecticut Streetcar

New Haven Proposes New Streetcar and a Highway Tear-Down

City plans for future development between downtown and principal train station

Proposed New Haven Streetcar

Streetcars last ran in New Haven, Connecticut’s second-biggest city, in 1948. Tracks were torn up and catenaries torn down as lines were replaced by bus routes and an increasingly car-driving public. But interest in a street-running rail system in the city remained, and this year Mayor John DeStefano (D) has made implementing a line one of his major priorities. But the project – so far without dedicated funding and lacking a commitment from the state government – could be stuck in the planning stage for a decade or more.

After studying the city’s downtown, transit consultants TranSystems concluded that a route connecting Union Station, where Amtrak intercity and Metro-North commuter rail trains arrive, with the downtown and medical center, would be most feasible in the short term. Future connections to the city’s less dense neighborhoods would have to wait. The line as proposed would run in a 3.6-mile loop from Union Station, through downtown along Church Street, around Yale Central Campus, up Chapel Street, west on Dwight Street, and then south through the Yale Medical Campus. The route would be popular for employees and students at Yale as well as downtown employees, most of whom work just blocks from the Green at the center of the city.

There are a few details that need to be worked out, including the exact alignment – how will streetcars fit on the very tight Chapel Street; is one-way operation the only option? But the plan would be relatively cheap to build, according to the consultants, at only about $30 million, and it would fit well with the federal government’s Small Start program. It also would mesh perfectly with several development programs the city is preparing at the moment, mostly along the path of the Route 34 highway, which was only partially completed and which the city now wants to tear down. This highway, which the city’s citizens refer to as a route to nowhere, divides the city in two and makes it difficult to walk between downtown and the medical center. Integrating the new development with a streetcar system would be ideal.

While I have confidence that this project would be relatively succesful, having lived in New Haven for four years and understanding traffic patterns well there, one-way operation would be a problem for people attempting to get to the station from downtown, as they’d be forced to go north before heading back south. That’s one easy way to turn off potential riders. Meanwhile, this line is too Yale-centric, a problem for a city that already has some signficant town-gown disparities. But with two-way operation along the loop, there’s no reason why this project couldn’t act as the trunk line for extensions throughout the city as the arrows I’ve added to the map above attest, southeast along Elm and Grand Streets to Wooster Square and East Haven; east to along Whitney to East Rock; north along Chapel to Dwight and Dixwell; and west to the Hill. Such a wide operation, extending from one tip of the city’s 19 square miles to the other, would be a fantastic way to improve the mobility of New Haven’s citizens.


Connecticut Opens Up to Transit Expansion

Commuter rail service likely to expand across the state, while light rail and busways being pushed in citiesConnecticut Transit Expansion

The Hartford Courant reports today that the State of Connecticut has become an active proponent of transit expansion, with a focus on improving commuter rail. The state Transportation Commissioner, Joseph Marie, has been working under Governor Jodi Rell (R) to expand connections between lines and to improve transit within cities.

For years, the state has been considering how to implement a new commuter rail line from New Haven to Springfield, via the state capital in Hartford, but only recently has the state put aside funds to make the project happen. In addition, the government is considering reactivating a line between Hartford and Waterbury, which would allow for faster trains between the capital and New York City, as well as a line from New London to Providence, via Norwich. The Metro-North railroad line that currently terminates in Danbury may be extended to New Milford and the Shore Line East line that ends in Old Saybrook may be expanded to New London.

One project that may be abandoned is the bus rapid transit line proposed on an abandoned rail right-of-way between Hartford and New Britain, because the rail connection between Waterbury and the capital would require the use of the same corridor. This may ultimately be good news if it means the commuter rail system can be implemented, because the BRT system would have been unfit for the corridor, as its density is too low for a mass transit line. In addition, the BRT line failed repeatedly to receive funds from the Federal Transit Administration, so a new plan might make sense.

But perhaps most interesting about the state’s strategy is its focus on improving transit within the state’s biggest cities. Light rail or streetcar lines within New Haven and Stamford, both along the Long Island Sound, have garnered state support after years of efforts by those cities’ mayors to get the projects built. Each city is relatively dense by American standards and each has been experiencing extensive downtown renewal over the past fifteen years. Streetcar systems connected to the well used Metro-North commuter lines to Manhattan would expand dense development in those cities’ cores and attract expanded transit ridership. As a former resident of New Haven, I can tell you that a streetcar line downtown would be a good project.

A light rail line from Hartford to its airport in Windsor Locks is also under consideration. I have my doubts about the usefulness of such a line – most of its path would go through rural areas, and the service would already be provided by the New Haven to Springfield line. Perhaps a line connecting East to West Hartford, via downtown, would make more sense.

Charlotte Connecticut Seattle

Seattle Viaduct Will be Tunnelled; Charlotte LRT to Expand; Connecticut Sees a New CR Line in Its Future

Seattle Approves Tunnel Replacement for Viaduct

After years of discussion – and few actual conclusions about what to do – it looks like Seattle will replace its elevated Alaskan Way Viaduct (shown in the picture above), which currently separates the city’s downtown from its waterfront, with a tunnel directly underneath downtown. It will be completed by 2015. The project, at a cost of $4.25 billion, will include the construction of the deep-bore two-level tunnel, the demolition of the viaduct, and its replacement with a park-like environment along the water (shown in the picture below). It seems likely that the city will contribute funds towards the project’s transit component, probably by building a waterfront streetcar that would fit in with the city’s overall inner city transit plan.

The viaduct, built in 1953, has been long in need of replacement. An earthquake in 2001 damaged it, making its continued use unsafe in the long-term. But the state and city have argued since about whether to replace the elevated highway with yet another viaduct, build a tunnel, or simply create a surface road along the waterfront. And just a month ago, the state seemed to have concluded that the only feasible options were the viaduct and surface options. So this news comes as quite a turn-around.

This is good news for Mayor Greg Nickels, who has campaigned vigorously against the new viaduct option. Governor Christine Gregoire’s new willingness to sponsor a state contribution to the project ($2.8 billion) means that the Mayor’s determination not to continue the city’s separation from its waterfront has been rewarded.

Charlotte Moves Ahead on Light Rail Expansion

The Lynx Blue Line, North Carolina’s first example of rail mass transit in decades, has been a dramatic success, having achieved its 2020 projected ridership goals within the first two months of operation. Running from the city’s downtown to the south, a proposed extension would extend the line from downtown to the northeast, reaching the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Yesterday, the city approved the routing of the project.

The 11-mile project is expected to cost around $900 million and will be completed by 2015 – construction could begin by next year. It will be funded by the city’s 1/2-cent sales tax, which is dedicated to mass transit.

Connecticut Blames Amtrak for New Haven-Hartford-Springfield Commuter Rail Delay

Connecticut, which currently offers Amtrak service from New Haven to Springfield, Massachusetts, via Hartford, the state capital, has been planning for the past few years to develop a commuter rail line along the same route, hoping to duplicate the success of the state’s Metro-North New Haven Line, which ferries commuters along the shore to New York City. The state has studied the project extensively and even developed a preliminary service plan, which could include the construction of a second track along the route and the development of several new stations.

But the state now argues that Amtrak is preventing the state from moving forward because the federal agency is demanding too much from the state – such as basic improvements along the line that would allow for service improvements. Now, while it’s always easy to blame Amtrak, in this case, the intercity rail operator makes sense. The route is currently in a decrepit state, trains must run at a slow speed along much of the line, and because of most of the route’s one-track nature, it would be difficult to add many trains. So if Connecticut is really intent on expanding service, it should invest in the line, paying for the upgrades before more trains are added.

This type of complaining, without promises by the state to improve the current situation, is pretty annoying.

Top photo from flickr user Slightlynorth under CC license; bottom photo from Washington State DOT