This week’s FROM WALLINGFORD is written by my counterpart on the column – Stephen Knight
Transportation Game-Changers: The Appian Way of ancient Rome, the Erie Canal of the 1820s, the 19th century Clipper ship, the transcontinental railroad completed in 1869, the New York City subway system of the early 20th century, the Interstate Highway System begun in 1956, the Boeing 707 developed in the late ‘50s, and the Sea-Land containership. These are but a few of the transportation projects that have not only transformed how we move about but eventually transformed either national or worldwide society.
With that as a backdrop, I have read with great interest the debate in the Record-Journal about the commuter railroad that the State of Connecticut is committed to building. The letters in the Record-Journal in response to the hyperbole- laden, this-is-the-answer-to-our prayers rhetoric from Speaker Donovan (I ask you: do they teach courses at the capital to write like that?) have been thoughtful and articulate. I especially enjoyed Bud Sielaff of Wallingford’s analysis of the supposed benefits of the project.
I would like to weigh in with these two observations: 1) proponents of this project – and I include myself in their ranks – really should level with the people as to the actual costs, and 2) the benefits of this project will take years if not decades to be realized.
First of all, let’s talk costs: the $800 million price tag is just to build the system. If this system is built, there will have to be an annual subsidy of millions of dollars to operate it. There is not a commuter rail system on the planet that is self-sufficient. I ride Metro North into New York on a fairly regular basis, and the trains are invariably packed, yet the State of Connecticut supplements their operating budget by many millions every year. And the State is buying 300 new railcars to the tune of $760 million to replace the 30 to 40-year old rolling stock now in use. Bottom line: these rail systems are big bucks to build and to operate.
Now that that’s on the table, we had better talk about benefits. And I’m not talking about 4,000 jobs, billions of gallons of gas saved and all the other supposed benefits Speaker Donovan listed that letter writer Sielaff so deftly refuted. I am speaking of the long-term benefits of an attractive, efficient alternative to the motor vehicle, long-term being defined as a period of at least fifty years. Yes, intelligent transportation planning needs to look to that far of a horizon.
Connecticut is one of the most densely populated states in the country, and despite the unattractive economic climate here presently, it probably will remain so for the next century. We have been told that miles driven in Connecticut are up by 30 percent over the past twenty-five years. That rate of increase is unsustainable for the future, given that land for additional lanes of interstate is almost impossible to purchase given current land values — even if the land were available, which it is not. We are built out. And can you imagine the disruption of constructing a fourth lane of I-91 in each direction? We’d all be at each other’s throats by the time we got to work each day. A veritable ten-year road rage epidemic.
So the ultimate benefit this commuter rail line will have is to protect the quality of life we enjoy here — in Wallingford and in Connecticut. It will be expensive. It will take decades for its impact to be realized. It is politically risky for our state leaders to ask Connecticut voters to assume this financial obligation at this precarious time.
All that said, we just have to find a way to avoid the slow, inexorable strangulation we are facing because of our total dependence on the automobile. Our transportation arteries are clogging. We need a bypass. Commuter rail from New Haven to Springfield is one of those “procedures” that will keep our state economy alive.