Photo: Ed Stannard / Hearst Connecticut Media
Politicians love a victory lap, and so it was this week that Gov. Ned Lamont and other elected officials gathered to extol the virtues of the Hartford Line, a rail service connecting New Haven to points north including Hartford and Springfield, Mass.
There was reason for good feelings on the first anniversary of the service, with passenger trips on the route beating initial projections by a healthy margin. The line is expected to record 630,000 passenger trips for the year, compared to 583,500 that had been expected, and a large majority of those riders report being satisfied with their experience.
With connecting bus service to Bradley International Airport, it’s now possible, though unwieldy, to get from nearly any train station in Connecticut to just about anywhere a person might want to go, all without getting behind the wheel of a car. This is the outline of a legitimately useful mass transit system, something that Connecticut has lacked for decades.
None of it is cheap. The Hartford Line requires significant state and federal subsidies to operate and will never be self-sustaining. But the benefits are significant, as well, with fewer cars on the road meaning less pollution and a break in the state’s chronic congestion. The mental break, as well, for people who can sit on a train instead of gripping a steering wheel for dear life amid interstate traffic is significant, too.
Mass transit doesn’t need to make sense for every trip, but it should be an option for people who have the time and desire to use alternate means. And healthy ridership totals show that investment in rail lines that are already in use could bring even greater dividends.
Metro-North’s New Haven Line is by far the best used train line in the state, but requires constant upkeep to ensure smooth rides and on-time service. The branch lines, too, are well-used but could see dramatic gains with more frequent service.
The Danbury branch, for instance, runs through a number of towns where local officials are eager to see new development around the train stations of the type that would be more practical with more trains. The Waterbury branch has stops in Naugatuck Valley communities that could use a boost of their own, and bringing more trains through would benefit both people who live in the towns and businesses who want to serve them. The same applies to the New Canaan branch.
State residents have shown that when transit options are available, they are utilized. Even the much-maligned CTfastrak, a bus-only system from New Britain to Hartford, has exceeded expectations, taking thousands of cars daily off a busy stretch of I-84. Like the Hartford Line, it’s expensive, but CTfastrak is part of a growing, integrated system that takes people to places without adding to traffic.
Lamont’s administration has put an early priority on mass transit. As the debate on highway tolls begins in earnest, the state needs to keep its focus on all types of transportation, not just what happens between the gantries.