Supporters hope new rail line changes car culture
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — With a clutch of offices up and down Interstate 91, staffing company president Tricia Canavan is used to thinking regionally.
Her commutes — fragmented, inefficient and unpredictable — tell a different story. The Hartford Line may change all that. Its frequent rail trips between New Haven, Hartford and Springfield were scheduled to start Saturday.
Some commuters say the new $700 million rail line is their way out of a congested car culture that weighs heavily on their wallets, time cards and nerves. The state Department of Transportation expects thousands of people to trade in driving for the convenience of the Hartford Line, which promises to make the 62-mile trip from Springfield to New Haven in about 80 minutes, and for less than traditional Amtrak tickets.
It’s an easy decision for Canavan, president of employment agency United Personnel, which is headquartered in downtown Springfield with offices in the old G. Fox building in Hartford and the Connecticut Financial Center in New Haven — all short walks from the train.
“It’s like a gift of two and a half hours of downtime when you can just focus,” said Canavan, of Hadley, Mass.
DOT bets plenty of people will feel the same way. The Hartford Line is expected to divert 1.5 million car trips per year by adding eight trips to the current slate of Amtrak routes running between New Haven and Springfield each day.
A monthly pass costs $168 to travel between New Haven and Hartford, $126 between Hartford and Springfield, and $267.75 to make the full trek end-to-end. Another $10 per month buys a rider unlimited bus trips to and from the train, while $20 buys a monthly parking pass at the train stations in Berlin, Wallingford and Meriden.
The line also adds late-night and weekend routes, but it will be made or broken by its regular Monday-through-Friday riders, says Jim Cameron, founder of Connecticut’s Commuter Action Group.
Cameron notes that DOT’s Shore Line East rail line was not an immediate success when it opened in 1990 to relieve traffic during construction on Interstate 95. Neither was CTfastrak, the rapid bus transit system that opened in March 2015 to reduce congestion on Interstate 84.
There is convenience in driving. Commuters may have to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic, but they can spend that time listening to the radio and talking on the phone. Drivers might have to pay for parking and gas, but they can run errands to and from work, like picking up groceries and dry cleaning.
“It’s a series of compromises and equations that people make,” Cameron said.
“It’s going to take time,” he added. “There’s a lot of ingrained behavior there and I think it’s going to take a lot of marketing and education and word of mouth to encourage people to even try taking the train.”
Despite the slow starts, the state’s mass transit systems have taken off. Shore Line East now has a weekday ridership of about 2,000 people. In the CTfastrak corridor, average weekday ridership has grown by about 3,000 trips in the last three years.
“Anyone who says the buses are empty is crazy,” said Andrew May, who uses CTfasttrak to commute from Hartford to Wheeler Clinic in Plainville. On Thursday morning, he was grabbing a coffee and yogurt from Parkville’s Cafe at Fifty-Five on his way to the bus station.
May said he expects the Hartford Line to be just as popular, if not immediately, then during the planned overhaul of Hartford’s aging viaduct.
“It’s already considered one of the worst bottlenecks,” May said. “When you start doing work on that...”
Maja Gill isn’t waiting for her drive to get worse. She plans to take the train from Hartford to New Haven for her job as assistant director of human resources at the Yale School of Medicine.
“It’s hard to just be in the car and drive because a lot of the times, I feel like I’m wasting my time and have to do something else,” like catch up with friends on the phone, she said. “It becomes unsafe at some point. How many things can I do while I’m driving to feel like I’m spending my time productively?”
She plans to trade her drive for the Hartford Line even though she has motion sickness, which makes reading and working on the go difficult. Instead, she’ll bond with her new baby, Alexander, and breastfeed before dropping him off at a New Haven daycare.
Gill, who used to take public transit in her native Croatia, also looks forward to meeting other commuters on her route.
Cameron thinks the line will be a harder sell for people who haven’t used mass transit in the past, not even buses.
“The people that would be potential passengers for this new Hartford Line are and have been for decades wedded to the idea of taking their car,” he said.
Molly Reynolds, who works at Hands on Hartford, agrees that breaking people out of their car habits could be a massive undertaking. Still, she’s hopeful the new train will create opportunities for people who want to live or work in booming areas like Parkville, now home to a brewery, loft apartments and co-working spaces.
“We’ve been not thinking ‘transportation grid’ for so long, it’s like, ‘Wow, that’s a possibility,’” Reynolds said. “It could be good for this neighborhood.”
Major Hartford employers also expect to benefit from easier access to the city.
“CTrail can help downtown employees attract talent and give people the opportunity to apply to jobs they may not have otherwise considered,” said Andy Bessette, chief administrative officer for Travelers Insurance.
Still, commuters like Canavan concede they’ll miss some things about their daily drives, like the freedom to stop for a cup of coffee anywhere along her route. The Hartford Line has no plans to serve food and drink on board.
“The train needs to install a mobile Dunkin’,” she joked.
Information from: Hartford Courant, http://www.courant.com