Inside a Commuter Rail Comeback for Hartford-New Haven Corridor
CITYLAB, July 25, 2018
By Leonard Felson
On a recent Thursday morning, Emily Keeney, a 30-year-old digital marketer from Queens, N.Y., was aboard a train rolling through New Haven, riding to her family home in Somers, Connecticut, for her younger sister’s high-school graduation. In the same car, Omar Eton, a 60-year-old Hartford cancer specialist, was returning to his office after appearing on a local TV news show in New Haven. Also a passenger was Nate Evans, a 27-year-old dance teacher, who lives about 40 minutes from his job in Hartford.
Together, they were among the first riders on the Hartford Line, the first commuter rail service to operate trains throughout the day through the cities of central Connecticut since the defunct New Haven Railroad stopped running in 1968. The new service, which launched on June 18, runs from Springfield, Massachusetts, to New Haven, making eight stops along the 62-mile Interstate 91 corridor. The full run takes about an hour and 20 minutes, with the Hartford-to-New-Haven stretch coming in around 40 minutes. During weekday rush hours, trains leave about every 30 minutes.
It’s no high-tech bullet train, but boosters in Connecticut’s struggling capital hope that the Line can be the little engine that transforms the city, spurring transit-oriented development downtown and luring youthful new residents. And it’s only one part of a whole suite of infrastructural efforts aimed at bringing life to a city overdue for renewal.
Hartford’s economic woes goes way back: Deindustrialization eroded the city’s factory base during the 20th century; riots in the late 1960s sped the flight of white residents and the middle class. By 1997, when the city’s lone big-league franchise, the Hartford Whalers of the National Hockey League, decamped for North Carolina, gloom had settled over the region’s communal psyche. In 2017, the insurance giant Aetna vowed to flee as well (then reversed itself), and Hartford famously flirted with bankruptcy. A last-minute state bailout saved the day, but lawmakers failed to address what city officials say are fundamental flaws in a municipal tax structure that makes it all but impossible to achieve fiscal stability. Hartford’s poverty rate of 31.2 percent is four times the rate of the surrounding suburbs.
Commuter rail has long been mulled as a possible solution. Its roots date back nearly 25 years, when Connecticut’s Department of Transportation undertook a feasibility study on renewing passenger service through the Connecticut River Valley. Leading the push for more trains was the Capitol Region Council of Governments, or CRCOG (pronounced “Crog” by locals), a metropolitan planning organization for the 1 million residents of 38 towns and cities across the 800-square-mile Hartford area. The group argued that commuter rail would improve the critical connection to New Haven and reduce traffic on often-congested Interstate 91. Others advocates and studies claimed it would make the region and state’s business climate more competitive by strengthening the link to New York City and other booming Northeast metros.
Importantly, the Hartford Line could also be put together on the cheap—at least as far as heavy rail projects go. The project’s $768 million cost is relatively inexpensive based on dollars per mile, and far less than starting from scratch would have been, since it largely piggybacks on existing Amtrak tracks; only one of the system’s two lines, torn up years ago, had to be replaced. State officials are leasing refurbished train cars from Massachusetts in a deal a state transportation spokesman said would have otherwise cost billions for new equipment. (Republican state lawmakers, however, have questioned the wisdom of that lease, calling it a potential money-pit that will cost the state far more.)
State and federal funding key back to top
State bonding covered more than two-thirds the cost, federal funds the remainder, which Connecticut received almost by luck when Governor Rick Scott of Florida turned down $2 billion in federal money for a high-speed rail link in 2011, money from the Obama administration’s stimulus package and a part of its vision to create a national high-speed rail network. In the near term, transit officials expect annual ridership of 700,000, and by 2013, more than 1.25 million riders.
Until now, infrequent and slow Amtrak trains were the only way for those in the Nutmeg State’s interior to connect with the Northeast and beyond—that or drive 45 minutes to New Haven, where trains run more frequently to New York and Boston. But the Hartford Line is just one piece of a larger transit dynamic on top of CTfasttrak, a three-year-old bus rapid transit system—Connecticut’s first. The 9.4-mile bus-only roadway extends from downtown Hartford through western and inner-ring suburbs, ending in New Britain, a struggling manufacturing town.
The system has been a magnet for criticism from state Republican legislative leaders, who have dubbed the system a boondoggle, questioning Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy’s ridership numbers and claiming buses run empty. But regardless of the politics, it seems to be spurring development near station stops. New Britain’s first major transit-oriented development is in the works, a move city officials say could serve as a catalyst for attracting young workers. Malloy, who decided not to run for a third term in November, maintains that ridership continues to exceed projections, and state transportation officials have talked about expanding the system to suburbs east of Hartford and to the University of Connecticut’s main campus in Storrs, 25 miles away.
The wave of development near the CTfastrak stations includes plans for housing and a food hall near Hartford’s Parkville stop in a largely Hispanic, once-industrial, neighborhood. A two-year old brewery nearby is also a draw. In scrappier Elmwood, a neighborhood in suburban West Hartford, a new apartment and retail project stands steps from its BRT station.
But it is downtown Hartford that stands to gain the most from the commuter and BRT lines. That’s because the city itself is small—just 18 square miles—and the central core is exceedingly compact: You can walk across town in 15 minutes, east to west (maybe 18 north to south).
That quality is what urban designer Doug Suisman, a native son who runs a Santa Monica, California-based firm, seized on when he masterminded the iQuilt Plan ten years ago. It focuses on three ingredients: the downtown’s walkability, its culture (regional theaters, a performing-arts center, an art museum, restaurants), and Hartford’s legacy of manufacturing innovation (the city was once a kind of “19th-century Silicon Valley”). “The vision was to create a vibrant downtown that would be the living room for the whole city,” said Suisman. “Changing the paradigm from a car-dominated and parking-dominated downtown to a city focused on pedestrians, biking, BRT, and commuter rail—all concentrated downtown.”
The plan involves linking the city’s historic and cultural highlights, which have felt scattered about, said Suisman. There’s a new half-mile-long, 30-foot-wide promenade and bike-friendly public space funded with $10 million in federal funds, extending along the edge of Bushnell Park, the city’s central park, past the Wadsworth Museum of Art on Main Street and over to Union Station, the region’s transit hub. Last month, the bikesharing company LimeBike deployed 400 of their dockless bikes in Hartford, further boosting downtown’s bike-friendliness.
The largest initiative to come from iQuilt is a master plan Suisman has developed for 20 acres of surface parking lots across the street from the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. Called Bushnell Park South, the plan would replace this sea of pavement with a mixed-use neighborhood of housing, shops and a new public square across the street from the theater. A block north of downtown, in newly dubbed NoDo, the city is banking on redeveloping 16 acres of underutilized land into more housing, offices and retail around Dunkin’ Donuts Park, the new home to the Hartford Yard Goats, a minor league affiliate of the Colorado Rockies. The stadium arrived late and over budget, but it drew more than 365,000 fans last season, its inaugural year, and won an online poll as best Double-A ballpark in the nation for the last two years.
Elsewhere, recent efforts to jump-start Hartford’s post-industrial transformation have doubled downtown’s residential population. Over the past six years, nearly a dozen older, vacant, or underperforming Class B office buildings have been converted into 1,600 apartments. The Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA), a quasi-public economic development and investment agency in and around Hartford, has pumped $105 million in state-backed bonding into downtown, making projects viable for private developers to take on, said the agency’s executive director, Michael W. Freimuth.
Hartford is trying to boost its appeal to Millennials landing jobs in the major insurance companies based in town (Aetna, Travelers, The Hartford, and Cigna) by emphasizing one big plus—far lower real-estate costs and housing prices compared to big-city neighbors Boston and New York. According to a survey of nine CRDA downtown projects, 50 percent of residents are indeed under 30, and most are new to the city. New downtown apartment buildings are almost fully leased, with little turnover or vacancies, officials and developers involved the revitalization efforts said. Last summer, UConn opened a downtown campus in the old Hartford Times building, putting more youthful feet on the street. “There’s tremendous potential to accelerate the revitalization that we’re already seeing,” said Luke Bronin, Hartford’s 38-year-old first-term mayor, referring to the new transit services.
To spur more construction, the city has also eliminated parking minimums almost entirely, opening up conditions for greater reliance on transit—the most ambitious move of its kind nationally, said Hartford’s planning and zoning commission chair Sara Bronin, an architect and UConn law professor (and wife of the mayor). Piloted downtown, the change was soon extended citywide. “We want developers and property owners to invest in amenities that add real value to our community—not oversized surface parking lots,” she said.
That’s the energy that boosters of the Hartford Line hope to tap into: With commuter rail and BRT added to the mix, a dynamic occurs that could be leveraged into something more. “The higher frequency [of rail and bus service] will create more demand around the stations and create a market for re-defining and redeveloping areas that might have been underutilized, said Dan Bartholomay, CEO of Rail-Volution, a nonprofit focused on building livable communities with transit.
Jamie Brätt, Hartford’s director of planning and economic development, reports that in the last several years, developers are showing increased appetite to take on projects in the city, and part of it is due to the new commuter line. “They recognize how important and catalytic transit has been in their cities, in places like Boston and New York that have a long history of commuter services.”
But the Hartford Line has many challenges to overcome. Almost 80 percent of Connecticut commuters drive to work; only five percent use bus or rail, according to the state transportation department. Metro Hartford commuters are no different, with only 3.5 percent using public transit. In early weeks, delays were frequent, and fixes will not be immediate: That’s because only one track exists between Hartford and Springfield, a project yet to be completed.
Ridership has ranged from 1,500 to nearly 2,000 riders daily, said Richard W. Andreski, chief of DOT’s public transportation bureau, on track with the first-year ridership goal. Operator CTrail, which is part of the state DOT, will launch customer surveys to determine how many riders are choosing to ride instead of drive. Andreski is confident that the city’s experience with BRT offers a hint that they will. “CTfastrak showed that when you provide a high quality, affordable public transportation option, people will choose to use that service rather than drive,” he said.
Just how many downtown residents don’t own cars and might start using the train or the BRT line is unclear. A U.S. Census survey put Hartford among the top ten cities nationally (eighth) with low car ownership rates, with 31.5 percent of households without cars. That compares with nine percent of households statewide. But it’s likely more a factor of poverty than choice, demographers say.
Nate Evans, the dance instructor, was riding the Hartford Line instead of driving that morning, but that’s because his car was in the shop. As he chatted with his fellow passengers, however, he looked a lot like someone who could turn into a regular rider soon. And Omar Eton, the Hartford cancer specialist riding back to work recently from New Haven, sounded like he could have been in a TV commercial for the new commuter train: He talked about what the connection could do for his hospital and for the local economy. “I love the pleasantness of taking the train instead of driving,” he said.
Added Emily Keeney, the digital marketer on her way back to her family home, “It’s a cool thing to have in Connecticut.”