Rallying around rail

If anything is holding Connecticut back as badly as having to pay for unfunded pension obligations, it's transportation. Just say "I-95" or "I-91" and watch people wince.

Commuter rail does its best work where there's large-scale employment in a concentrated area that is not home to all the skilled workers needed by the various industries and businesses. The immediate popularity of the newly opened New Haven-Springfield commuter rail shows what happens when people gain options for where those in their households can live and still get to work in a reasonable time. Middletown and other Connecticut River Valley towns may even be on the cusp of growth as bedroom communities for couples who say goodbye in the morning and entrain north to Hartford or Windsor Locks or south to New Haven and the shoreline.

If the agreeable but spotty Shore Line East service from New Haven to points east could get the same kind of expansion — more trains, newer cars — rail commuting would be a genuine option here as well. That would surely boost the recruitment and retention pitches from Electric Boat, whose potential employees have to consider what taking a job in New London or Groton will mean for the career options of a spouse. A transfer from the north-south rail to one that heads east would round out the options for central Connecticut commuters, who can already head west to Fairfield County and New York on Metro North. And it would allow people to live here and work there.

A 10-year forecast of 14,000 new shipyard, design and engineering employees, to fill the Navy's orders for increased production of Virginia-class submarines and a new class of ballistic-missile submarines, calls for more than one strategy. This is one of Connecticut's best and more affordable places to live, and we welcome Friday's announcement by Sen. Chris Murphy that the Pentagon will fund an expanded study of the shortage of appropriate housing and infrastructure needs in southeastern Connecticut.

Still vital is planning and support for workers who want or need to live outside the immediate vicinity. That includes envisioning how eastern Connecticut will look with thousands more workers and their families. Mass transit must be part of that vision, if it is to come true.

Ideas have their moments — and then the moment can slip by, and the idea loses its luster. That may have already happened to much of Gov. Dan Malloy's multi-billion-dollar, 10-year plan to widen I-95. But not mass transit. Despite constant criticism, the governor stuck to his project of opening up a bus route between New Britain and Hartford. In a late spurt of his administration's early efforts to bring more jobs to the state he is making deals for companies to move in along that corridor.

Eastern Connecticut can't let all the action happen elsewhere. Besides commuter rail it has a particular legacy to protect, one that Hartford would love to take over: Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. Amtrak made just one, poorly thought out overture to keep the interstate passenger rail traveling along the shoreline route, but it virtually guaranteed the defeat of the plan by routing it through historic Old Lyme sites and slicing off a section of Olde Mistick Village.

Murphy, in a transportation forum held in April at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London, warned the assembled business and tourism leaders that telling Amtrak "no" without staying in the conversation would signal the railroad planners to look elsewhere. Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin will be lobbying heavily for the Northeast Corridor to pass through his city as he executes his plan for urban growth.

Before the regions of this tiny state start open competition for Amtrak, eastern Connecticut needs to bestir itself for what's at stake. When the news was bad — that the Defense Department wanted to close the Naval Submarine Base in Groton — business and civic leaders and elected officials rallied with a compelling argument and cash from the state to keep it open. Fear of what the loss would mean fueled that effort.

This time the challenge is not loss but gain. It's hard for a region that hasn't had a growth spurt in decades to see what it could become, but EB expansion is here and the clock is ticking on Amtrak's planning for the Northeast Corridor. Time to define how mass transit can carry eastern Connecticut.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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