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    Saturday, September 30, 2023

    Commuter communities?

    The drivers of Fairfield County might not believe it, but southeastern Connecticut is a commuter community too. The region’s major employers -- Electric Boat, Pfizer, the naval submarine base, the two casinos, nuclear power station, and the colleges and state university branch -- draw employees, students and vendors by the thousands every workday. Virtually all travel by car.

    In Fairfield and New Haven counties, however, commuting to work by rail can be a realistic alternative. The trains run often enough to make it feasible to rely on getting home again at night. Connections that head inland from the main Amtrak Northeast Corridor used by Metro North increase the number of communities where one can live and take the train to work.

    Along the shore, New Haven is the end of the line for Connecticut’s Metro North, leaving commuters with the much spottier schedule of Shore Line East, and only as far east as New London.

    SLE goes neither far nor often enough to mature into a dependable commuting option. Instead of designing a commuter train and bus network that could make it easier for employers to draw more business or hire more workers, the state of Connecticut has not gone the extra mile. Rather than address lingering pandemic-era declines in ridership, the state has merely canceled trains of new rail cars.

    The schedules will not be changing dramatically anytime soon, but a new study suggests an extensive -- and expensive -- expansion of service east to Westerly, with added stops in Groton and Stonington and making use of existing rails up to the Coast Guard Academy, Connecticut College, casinos and Norwich.

    That would feel like New London County had finally taken a place at the grownups’ table.

    As survivors of decades spent discussing the phantom Route 11, people in southeastern Connecticut might raise an eyebrow at such an ambitious idea. But consider these factors:

    – Major employers might be willing to get behind a plan that delivers more of the workers they need. Rental housing can’t do it all.

    – A study is underway about what should be done with the Route 32 corridor, currently the gateway road to Norwich, Plainfield, Lisbon and bedroom communities for employers in the southern part of the county. A rail alternative might be far more palatable than a wider, crowded Route 32.

    – A shoreline extension to Westerly could potentially ease the traffic volume on the Gold Star Bridge over the Thames River and as far back as the Baldwin Bridge over the Connecticut River.

    The price tag attached to the ideas in the study is a hefty billion dollars. Whether that’s worthwhile to taxpayers and the State Bond Commission must start with close examination of costs versus benefits.

    – To add the annual 286,000 riders estimated in the study would mean what, in dollars? How many jobs? (143,000 people, each going round trip?)

    – How much wear and tear saved, along with repair and maintenance costs, on interstates 95 and 395 and the bridges?

    – Besides state bonding and hoped-for federal subsidies, would the so-called Gas Tax be available to underwrite commuter rail?

    – Would this plan significantly help the state meet its lowered carbon emissions goals? Is there enough electric supply to keep the trains running?

    – Does the state Department of Economic and Community Development project more job creation and new industries from this? Do the Navy, the Coast Guard, the casinos and the colleges see themselves promoting and benefiting from commuter rail?

    – And most important of all: Will people use it? In a region that loves its pickup trucks, will a cost savings on gas and tires be enough of a sell? What will be the plan for running enough trains so that people can count on their ride home?

    The best thing transportation and development planners can do right now is to exhaustively test the ideas with employers and with town officials who are trying to judge how much new development their communities need and can handle. This must not just sit on a drawing board for perusal by wonks. For eastern Connecticut and southern Rhode Island to embrace a widespread lifestyle change people need to begin to imagine why they might like it.

    The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Timothy Dwyer, Executive Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, retired executive editor Tim Cotter and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

    Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.