AP NEWS

Transit has to be about more than cars

February 22, 2019

For all the talk of tolls, transportation hasn’t been a focal point of the young Lamont administration.

Instead of his predecessor’s 30-year, $100 billion plan to overhaul state transit, Ned Lamont is hoping to keep the system taped together while he waits for money from tolls to start arriving in a few years.

The governor’s budget speech last week was short on grand plans for almost anything, though to be fair it’s hard to be soaring when the topic is how to get out from under chronic deficits. Instead the governor wants to dramatically scale back debt spending, which is how anything big gets done, transit included.

His reasoning is defensible. We have major long-term fiscal problems, and borrowing contributes to yearly shortfalls. But we also have an aging, overtaxed transit network that isn’t serving the purpose it’s designed for.

What it’s ostensibly designed for is to get people where they’re going as fast as possible, which is funny for anyone who’s ever sat on I-95 for a weekday rush hour that usually lasts closer to four or five hours.

But in the absence of a grand plan, there’s time to look back on Dannel Malloy’s gargantuan proposal, and what a scaled-down, debt-averse version might look like.

We could start with eliminating altogether the centerpiece of the 30-year outlook — widening I-95 and I-84. There’s really no way Malloy could have thought this was going to happen. It goes against everything planners have been saying for decades, which is that adding to road capacity only induces more people to drive, leaving congestion as bad as it was before you started.

There are certain specific places where an extra lane can help — the ongoing project in Waterbury, for example. But in general, more lanes are the worst kind of transportation policy. It seems likely Malloy knew it would never happen but wanted to get credit for having proposed it.

The planned transit upgrades looked better. Wherever there are existing train lines — and that’s a lot of places around here, with little- or never-used freight lines running just out of sight all around Connecticut — they should be examined for upgrades for potential passenger service. But all that is expensive.

And as welcome as more mass transit would be, the way most people get around is roads. Ideally, roads are meant to serve drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists, among others. According to recent numbers, we are doing a terrible job of remembering that.

In the past decade, the number of people in this country struck and killed while walking increased by 35 percent. This is according to a national report called “Dangerous By Design,” put out annually by Smart Growth America. It’s available online and is enough to convince you never to walk in Florida, which has eight of the nation’s 10 most dangerous metropolitan areas for pedestrians.

Connecticut ranks in the middle of the pack in terms of danger, but everywhere the number of deaths is rising, probably in large part due to distracted drivers.

To their credit, most Connecticut cities have some form of Complete Streets, a program that aims to rethink the design of roads to focus on safety and multipurpose uses. Inconvenient as people in cars might find it, driving down city streets shouldn’t be as mindless as a trip down the expressway.

The state needs to do more, and not just in the cities. Pedestrians should take priority, traffic-calming measures should be a matter of course, and every populated area should be designed to be as safe to walk as the local park. From the state level down, safety and multipurpose use of roads, excluding highways, should come first.

It would cost less than $100 billion.

And for a lot of people, living car-free is the only option. Up to a third of people in Connecticut’s cities don’t have a car, and they need streets that cater to their needs. Cities and its voters are the top reason Lamont is governor today. Maybe his transit goals could align with theirs.

hbailey@hearstmediact.com