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.