Mass transit finally getting on track

In virtually every promotional publication designed to attract tourists, prospective businesses or new residents, southeastern Connecticut touts its geographical position midway between New York and Boston as a main selling point - as if motorists simply can hop in their cars and merrily zip to either city for work, a delightful day of shopping, sight-seeing or visiting cultural attractions.

The reality, sadly, often is fouled by a nightmarish, road-rage-fueled drive on Interstate 95.

Amtrak offers more relaxing train service at a hefty price - a one-way ticket from New London's Union Station to New York's Penn Station costs from $47 to $67, depending on time of departure - but savvy passengers take advantage of lower fares using the state-subsidized Shore Line East and Metro-North commuter rail services that typically cuts the price by about a third.

Until this week such reduced prices were only available on trains to the Big Apple, but now passengers heading to Beantown can save money and some highway aggravation thanks to new service between North Kingstown, R.I., and Boston's South Station.

In addition, during inaugural ceremonies Monday at North Kingstown's Wickford Junction, Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Richard A. Davey pledged, "On to Westerly," referring to tentative plans to extend the new service even closer to the Connecticut border.

This is great news, since it would only leave a short gap of about 15 miles between Westerly and New London not served by commuter rail.

Of course, there are limitations: Shore Line East only runs on weekdays between New London and New York; weekend travelers must drive to stations in Old Saybrook or New Haven on holidays or weekends.

Similarly, the new service between North Kingstown and Boston only operates Monday through Friday, with the one-way fare to South Station now set at $9 and rising to $11 July 1.

It costs $34 to take a regular Amtrak train one way from New London to Boston, and $78 for a ticket on the high-speed Acela, so even factoring in the cost of a half-hour drive from New London to North Kingstown travelers would save money on the new Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority service.

Authorities have long promised to improve mass transit as a means of alleviating dreaded traffic on I-95, but all too often these efforts have stalled, mostly for financial reasons.

To be sure, extending service comes with a steep price.

The Wickford Junction Station, which includes a 1,100-car parking garage, cost $58 million in federal and Rhode Island state funds.

Here in Connecticut, the state is looking to expand weekend Shore Line East service, with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proposing an additional $260,000 for five new weekend round-trips between Old Saybrook and New London starting in April 2013, along with one new round-trip from New Haven to Old Saybrook.

In addition, state transportation officials are moving forward with plans that could eventually add a commuter rail stop and station in Niantic after a four-decade absence.

The East Lyme village has been without a rail station or stop since the early 1970s, when Amtrak discontinued its "Clamdigger" commuter service.

With gas prices increasing, traffic thickening and driver patience thinning, it appears that mass transit may finally be on the right track.

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