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    Saturday, September 23, 2023

    Get them here and us there

    In the early days of Connecticut gaming, when casino managers feared a shortage of the workers they needed by the thousands, the state cooperated in providing bus transportation. People from other parts of Connecticut could take jobs here. I don’t recall policymakers taking the opportunity to showcase “the casino bus” as commuter transit, but of course that is what it was.

    State transportation policymakers today appear to be underestimating a golden opportunity to develop commuter transit options for points east of New Haven. That’s the polite way to say what seems obvious: What are they thinking, when they propose not to extend but to cut back Shore Line East service after investing millions in new equipment? At a time when the need for non-fossil fuel travel will only grow? Without trying the tactic of promoting commuter rail not only to back-and-forth commuters but to incoming tourists the state otherwise works hard to attract?

    You would think the benefit of lowering rush hour traffic on Interstate 95 would alone be worth making the effort to market commuting by trains.

    Faced with a decrease in ridership levels that has persisted from the work-at-home pandemic era, the state is reacting to far higher levels of subsidy than it has previously paid or is willing to fund. In a recent column for the Connecticut Mirror, “How to Kill a Train Line,” passenger advocate Jim Cameron agrees that the state subsidy of rides on Shore Line east has skyrocketed.

    Pre-Covid, the state subsidized each individual ride at almost $50. Now, the state pays slightly more than $132 per person per ride, while the rider may pay closer to $20. Ridership stands is down by two-thirds from what it was before the pandemic.

    But the Lamont administration is giving up on eastern Connecticut too soon. An employment surge comparable in size but greater in earning power than the casino hiring boom is underway again in eastern Connecticut.

    Electric Boat, which is seeking to hire several thousand more employees, should certainly welcome the chance for its recruiters to tell potential employees they can live anywhere near a shoreline rail station and get to work here. That could enable people with spouses or partners working elsewhere to commute in this direction and then use the company shuttle between Union Station in New London and the Groton and New London EB locations.

    As The Day has documented in its Housing Solutions Lab series, New London County suffers from the statewide shortage of housing but with the added effect of the thousands of new Electric Boat employees. Apartment buildings are going up, but they aren’t all ready. Real estate brokers are desperate for inventory, even if they like the commissions on sales way above asking price.

    Commuting is the immediate answer. The state could sell this, and it should follow through with a commuter rail study that can help plan expansion to the east as well.

    And then there are those who commute not to this area but from it.

    A person I know who was sent home to work for several pandemic years brought her work here instead of staying in New York City, where the early days of Covid were particularly risky. Like millions of others, she mastered digital out-of-office work that could be done anywhere with reliable internet.

    Now that she must go into the office, she spends a couple of days a week here and then -- like commuters elsewhere do -- she works on the train during trips back and forth. She told me she finds the ride pleasant, the price right, and the atmosphere of the newly refurbished cars more conducive than Amtrak, which caters to long-distance travelers.

    It takes longer than Amtrak to get to Manhattan, but the Metro North train she takes after Shore Line East goes to the more convenient, more user-friendly Grand Central Station instead of the massive Moynihan Train Hall at Penn Station used by Amtrak.

    DOT and DECD could sell this, too, to people coming back regularly from either North or South.

    Finally, there is bound to be a market for tourism by commuter rail, if people knew they had the option. Like all potential riders, this group would need assurance that they can get back home late in the evening once they travel here for, say, the Thames River Heritage Park boat ride or Sailfest or a rideshare trip to Mystic. The same goes for people who live here riding to New Haven for dinner and a show.

    Increase the rides, even slightly raise the ticket prices, and make sure the public knows they can come and go without braving the I-95 parking lot. Do it now, as the region sucks in its breath for delays from infrastructure act improvements, bridge repairs and the redesigned interchange in East Lyme, to name a few.

    Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.

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