Transportation Strategy for Southwestern Connecticut

Submitted by H. Franklin Bloomer

The following letter updates a 20-year strategic plan for transportation prepared in November 2002 by the Coastal Corridor Transportation Investment Area (CCTIA), a state-mandated body of which I am co-chair. The CCTIA represents towns located in southwestern Connecticut, and it reports to the Transportation Strategy Board, which is responsible for developing a statewide plan. I was the principal draftsman of both the plan and the update letter.

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September 1, 2006

 

[Addressed to the Chairman of the Transportation Strategy Board]

At its meeting on August 31, 2006, the Coastal Corridor Transportation Investment Area (CCTIA) re-endorsed its November 6, 2002 Twenty-Year Strategic Plan for Transportation with the one addition (relating to highway safety) that we adopted in connection with our update in 2004. We also approved this letter commenting on the extent to which the recommendations of our 2002 Plan have been incorporated in the strategy of the Transportation Strategy Board (TSB) and responding to your request for a list of projects needed to carry out the state’s transportation strategy.

At the request of the TSB, our 2002 Plan identified the five broad strategies and five “projects” that we thought most important. The five broad strategies were as follows:

1. Increase the number of trips using alternative modes of transportation. By “alternative modes”, we meant alternatives to cars and trucks. The TSB’s strategy includes alternative modes, but implementation of these recommendations has lagged behind implementation of recommendations that accommodate cars and trucks. To our knowledge, there are no plans to provide more frequent commuter rail service on Metro-North, and no progress has been made in improving commuter rail service on the Danbury branch line, both of which were high priority recommendations in our 2002 Plan. Our Plan also recommended expanded bus service, but on balance bus service has had to be reduced due to insufficient operating funds, and some agencies have had to raise fares. Little progress has been made in expanding bicycle and pedestrian facilities.

2. Consider how best to manage public transportation in Connecticut. The TSB’s strategy has not addressed this recommendation. It was intended to consider how best to ensure focus on and commitment to public transportation. Our 2002 Plan specifically recommended considering the establishment of a separate transit authority and of a separate funding source for public transportation. Based on the extent to which funding of the needs of bus transit and commuter rail is being limited, particularly operating costs, this remains a concern.

3. Develop cost-effective, efficient alternatives to trucks for the movement of goods. Connecticut is heavily dependent on trucks for the movement of goods. Because of their importance in interstate commerce, increased use of rail and waterborne modes will require closer interaction with adjoining states. For example, our 2002 Plan specifically recommended support for a new rail freight connection across the Hudson River and limited rail freight operations through Penn Station, both of which would involve working with New York State agencies.

4. Integrate land use and transportation planning. The TSB’s strategy addresses this issue primarily by recommendations relating to the state’s Plan of Conservation and Development. These recommendations seek to improve the state’s land use planning, but they do little to integrate land use planning with transportation planning. Two examples of integrated land use and transportation planning contained in our 2002 Plan were recommendations for action, possibly at the legislative level, that would encourage (a) Smart Growth and transit-oriented development and (b) development of affordable housing in proximity to places of employment.

5. Identify new, stable sources of funding to support transportation. Public transportation requires stable funding. While funding has been found for a number of transportation projects, the sources of this funding are not stable. Increased gasoline taxes and tolls may be politically unattractive, but both would provide a stable flow of revenue. Our 2002 Plan also recommended developing revenue sources that charged other beneficiaries of good transportation access, such as real estate developers and retailers.

To implement the broad strategies stated above, the CCTIA’s 2002 Plan made a large number of specific recommendations. Again at the request of the TSB, our Plan identified the five that it considered most important. We emphasized that these should not be viewed as our complete strategic plan.

1. Immediately order new rail cars both (a) to maintain existing commuter rail service and (b) to increase service, develop additional storage and maintenance facilities as needed for a larger fleet and improve rail station access. The first part of this recommendation would be addressed if the recently-announced purchase of new rail cars goes forward and includes both the base order for 210 cars and the 170 cars for which Metro-North will have options. This purchase would result in replacement of the aging fleet of cars used on Metro-North’s main line and enable it to continue the service it now provides, presumably with more reliable equipment. But the purchase would not address the second part of the recommendation, which is to order a number of new cars that would enable Metro-North to increase service. The need for additional storage and maintenance facilities and improved rail station access follows from the enlarged fleet, an increase in service and the resulting greater utilization of commuter rail.

2. Create a container barge feeder service from Port Elizabeth to a Connecticut port or ports. Our 2002 Plan recommended that both Bridgeport and New Haven be considered as receiving ports for the proposed feeder barge service. The state legislature has since designated Bridgeport as a receiving port.

3. Support a new rail freight connection across the Hudson River at New York City. The TSB’s strategy declined to support this recommendation, noting concerns about the capacity of the state’s rail infrastructure and incompatibility of passenger and freight operations. To our knowledge, no study of these concerns has been performed, and none was proposed. As stated in our 2002 Plan, we believe a fast, intermodal freight train could be accommodated each hour except during morning and evening peak hours. Additional freight trains could operate during nighttime hours. Particularly since the proposed cross-harbor tunnel from Bayonne, New Jersey, to the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn has received funding under the recently-passed federal transportation law (SAFETEA-LU), the TSB should reconsider this project, which would remove the Hudson River barrier to the movement of rail freight into and through southwestern Connecticut. The TSB should also reconsider support for provision for rail freight operations in any new rail tunnels into New York’s Penn Station.

4. Improve commuter rail service on the Danbury Branch line and develop other travel options along the Route 7 corridor. As noted in our 2002 Plan, improvement of rail service on the Danbury branch line is dependent on completion of the “Centralized Train Control” branch line management system. Having expected to advertise this project in 2003, Conn/DOT is currently redesigning the system, and consequently no progress has been made in the phased improvement of service contemplated by the Route 7 Travel Options Study.

5. Increase use of Transportation Demand Management strategies through the marketing of the benefits of alternative modes of transportation and offering employee and employer incentives. Since 2002, a Transportation Demand Strategy that has gotten increasing, and positive, publicity is road pricing. Charging users for their use of the roads is based on the premise that, if a finite resource is free, human beings tend to use it all up, regardless of the consequences, but if it has a cost, they tend to use it more rationally. If the charge is varied according to the time of day (higher during peak periods), some drivers will change the time of day when they travel or combine or even eliminate some trips. As SWRPA’s Vision 2020 Study demonstrated, a variable charge can be made even more effective if combined with reciprocal pricing of public transportation along the same corridor (i.e., reducing fares on public transportation at times when road pricing is increased). Road pricing has the incidental benefit of providing a stream of revenue.

Your letter of June 22, 2006 to the CCTIA’s co-chairs asks us to provide a list of projects that are needed to carry out the state’s transportation strategy. The following list is limited to projects that would increase the use of alternative modes. Additional projects are found in our 2002 Plan, and those projects we believe should be given priority are noted.

1. Develop the following comprehensive, state-wide plans:

  • An operational and management plan for commuter and inter-city rail service designed to increase rail ridership;
  • A freight data resources and marketing plan designed to reduce the state’s dependence on trucks; and
  • A highway management plan that incorporates system management, demand management, intelligent transportation systems and incident management strategies.

2. Determine the additional commuter rail service that would attract a significant number of persons now traveling by car. At a minimum, this would mean introducing half-hourly service on Metro-North’s main line east of Stamford but consideration should also be given to providing “subway/shuttle” service throughout the main line, improving commuter rail service on the Waterbury branch line (see next paragraph regarding the Danbury branch line) and better integrating the services offered by Metro-North and Shore Line East. On the basis of this determination, increase the order for new rail cars and construct the necessary storage and maintenance facilities and improved station access to support the expanded service.

3. Complete the redesign of the Centralized Train Control Branch Line management system for the Danbury branch line, install the system and proceed with implementation of the improvements to commuter rail service contemplated by the Route 7 Travel Options Study.

4. Perform a study of the extent to which the state’s rail infrastructure, particularly the Metro-North main line, could support freight operations.

5. Study the best practices in managing public transportation to determine how best to enhance focus on, accountability for, and commitment to, public transportation in Connecticut.

6. Do a study of road pricing on the state’s limited access highways having a scope at least as comprehensive as SWRPA’s recent application to the Federal Highway Administration for such a study.

7. Strengthen the TSB’s strategy in respect of expanding bicycle and pedestrian facilities (for which a substantial increase in funding is available under SAFETEA-LU).

While these projects focus primarily on reducing the state’s dependence on roads, we continue to support needed operational and safety improvements to our roads throughout the CCTIA but with particular focus on improving traffic flow on major highways (without widening Route I-95) and, so as improve north/south connectivity, to capacity and safety improvements on existing Routes 7 and 25 and a study of improvements to road and rail capacity along the Route 8 corridor.

We look forward to continuing to work with the TSB to move forward the transportation agenda and implement the strategies and projects contained in our 2002 Plan.

Respectfully submitted,

Franklin Bloomer and Karen Burnaska

Co-Chairs