Malloy’s high-cost victory ride on the rails

December 28, 2018

It’s a long ride on public transit from central Massachusetts to Manhattan for Colin Schimmelfing, a recent college graduate from Northampton, now living in the city. He appreciates the new upgrades along the stretch down the Connecticut Valley to New Haven.

Before that commuter line opened in June, he said, “My parents would pick me up in New Haven.”

His friend Jessye Herrell, from Northampton, now Brooklyn, nodded in agreement as she rode the Springfield-to-New Haven rail Thursday afternoon. Up the aisle, Andre Shepley, a tech employee and grad student heading from his hometown of Springfield back to, yeah, Brooklyn, was in the same boat, er, train.

Okay, great. The CTRail line — with 17 round trips a day between New Haven and Hartford, and a dozen round trips from the state capital to Springfield — makes traveling to, from and through central Connecticut cheaper and easier — compared with the old, limited Amtrak service.

But what do we make of it? At a cost of $769 million to build, and an estimated $44 million to run in its first year, was it worth it?

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy says yes, emphatically. He rode the line from Hartford to Springfield in that same car Thursday along with the U.S. Representatives from both cities, celebrating the service as part of his victory tour, or shall we say, legacy tour.

More on the money in a bit. Suffice to say, it’s a hefty per-ride subsidy. Malloy and the congressmen — both senior members of the committee that controls spending — talked effusively about the need to connect cities, transit-oriented development and the economic future.

Schimmelfing said it best, assessing the commuter line as he passed through a state that’s been pretty much a blur for him as a college student in Pennsylvania and now a resident of the Upper East Side.

“I always thought of Connecticut as a bedroom community for New York. This feels a little bit more like it’s got something going on,” he said, passing the historic Windsor Locks Canal. “That would make me more likely to want to live there. That’s why people are moving to cities.”

Ah, cities. In Schimmelfing’s view, it’s about the ability to live in a place where he and his future partner can both commute to good jobs, not necessarily in the same place.

What’s the value of the commuter rail line if these young, highly educated people start to want to live in Connecticut?

“It’s really important for people who come from where I come from,” said Shepley, who said some of his friends from Springfield have jobs in Connecticut.

For Malloy, and U.S. Reps. John B. Larson, D-1st District and Richard Neal, D-Springfield, it’s a reason to spend significant public money. The service is an add-on to existing Amtrak service, with some friction between the state and the national passenger railroad.

“This just makes so much sense,” Malloy said on the Hartford platform as the 4-car train approached from New Haven. “When I got into office there were no agreements in place to get this built by Amtrak, there was insufficient amounts of money...We had to pound it out with Amtrak to get it done.”

The service combines two existing Amtrak routes, seven new Amtrak-run commuter runs and the rest on CTRail trains with equipment leased from Massachusetts. It’s on pace to exceed 600,000 passengers in the first year, a Connecticut Department of Transportation official said, up from fewer than 300,000 when Amtrak ran six round trips a day.

That means there are plenty of empty seats on some runs, but overcapacity on others. And that has led to some problems as, for example, Amtrak has honored its passengers with reservations, leaving some commuters out.

That’s a good problem to have, said John Bernick, assistant rail administrator for the state DOT, on the ride Thursday. It means trains are full — but it does require more cars, and a better system.

For Malloy, his first ride on the line to Springfield was a time to look at history.

“It was foolish of prior leadership to turn their back on a rail system in favor of an over-reliance on a highway system,” he said. The commuter line is helping to “correct the wrong decisions that were made 50 years ago.”

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