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.