November 13, 2017

Expanded rail line aims to broaden talent pool for regional employers

HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
John Bernick, asst. rail administrator at the Dept. of Transportation.
HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
Work continues on the Berlin Station at 51 Depot Road, one of the stops on the Hartford Line. Improvements at the station, scheduled for completion early next year, include high-level platforms on both sides of the tracks, elevators, stairways, an overhead pedestrian bridge to cross the tracks, canopies covering about half the platform, and surface parking for about 220 vehicles.
HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
Photo | Contributed
This map shows the rail line’s link to regional routes.
This map shows a vision for a significant expansion of passenger service in the Northeast, as well as current and future rail station stops.
HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
John Bernick, asst. rail administrator at the Dept. of Transportation, in front of the Berlin station.
Photo | Contributed
Photo | Contributed

CT Rail Service Station Locations

• New Haven Union Station

• New Haven State Street Station

• Wallingford

• Meriden

• Berlin

• Hartford Union Station

• Windsor

• Windsor Locks

• Springfield Union Station

Source: CT DOT

The new $769 million CTrail Hartford Line launching service next May between Springfield and New Haven is expected to broaden workers' employment reach and give employers in the Hartford and Elm City regions the ability to draw from a larger workforce pool, officials familiar with the project say.

The intended effects include promoting economic development by expanding access to major employment centers, providing a catalyst for development near train stations, and fostering environmental benefits and a fast transportation alternative.

People who live between Hartford and Springfield who previously might have been deterred from work in New Haven or beyond due to traffic hassles, delays, stress and driving cost, may be inclined to consider a rail commute, officials say. Passengers arriving in New Haven can walk across the platform for Metro-North connections to Shore Line East, Stamford or New York City, or, in reverse, to trains headed to Hartford and Springfield.

"A huge benefit of the project is access to jobs," said John Bernick, assistant rail administrator at the Connecticut Department of Transportation, who called it a "game-changer for the I-91 corridor" in various ways.

As part of the new CTrail Hartford Line service, funded through state and federal funds, travelers in New Haven, Wallingford, Meriden, Berlin and Hartford will board trains every 45 minutes during the morning and evening peak hours, and approximately every 90 minutes during off-peak periods, improving to 30 and 60 minutes, respectively, when future improvements are made. Trains will travel up to 110 mph.

Weekday service will begin as early as 6 a.m. and run as late as 11 p.m. Stops also are planned in Windsor, Windsor Locks and Springfield, with four future stations planned in North Haven, Newington, West Hartford and Enfield.

Wallingford's new $21 million Hartford Line station opened to the public Nov. 6.

The four future stations, plus additional track and bridge work and purchase of more trains, would cost about $500 million, for which Connecticut would seek additional federal funding to complement state funding. Bernick said he can't provide a target date for completing that work since it's dependent on future funding availability. Of the $769 million budget for the initial service in May, $564 million is state money, $205 million is federal.

"This is potentially a very big deal in terms of getting people access to employment," said Lyle Wray, executive director of the Capitol Region Council Of Governments (CRCOG).

"People can get to better jobs more conveniently, more reliably, which I think is a very important piece," he said.

Employer interest

A biennial survey of business leaders by the Connecticut Business & Industry Association and New England's Knowledge Corridor released last month showed that among 440 respondents, 22 percent said they or their employees will use the new rail service, 25 percent were unsure and 53 percent would not.

Yale New Haven Health System (YNHHS), with its 23,548 employees spread around the state, sees great potential in the new rail line for its existing employees north of New Haven, said Vin Petrini, senior vice president of public affairs. YNHHS also has a significant medical complex in North Haven within walking distance of the proposed train station on the Hartford Line.

"Having that level of access to public transportation and to rail lines could be a very significant economic driver for us," he said.

YNHHS, which runs free 42-seat shuttle buses to and from its facilities and Union Station in New Haven, encourages public transportation use among employees, incentivizing them with a 60 percent subsidy of their fares. Combining that with the new line "could be a very powerful incentive for folks to join the organization," Petrini said.

"I think the rail line would provide greater access for both employees and patients to not only New Haven, but to North Haven," and also alleviate some of the parking challenges in New Haven, he said.

Ann Hogan, senior government affairs officer for YNHHS, said she commutes daily from Hartford to work, a roughly hour drive excluding accidents and construction delays. She said her many meetings around the state would preclude her from using rail service every day, but it would be an option for days she doesn't travel.

"I think that it has some real potential benefits for employees that have set hours," Hogan said.

Ridership projections

It's hard to gauge the rail line's success ahead of launch, but Wray cited the examples of how Worcester, Mass., and Providence, with enhanced and easily accessible rail service, dramatically increased their connections to Boston and provided more opportunities for commuting there from each city, he said.

The Hartford Line will offer 17 daily roundtrips between Hartford and New Haven, up from six today, and 12 between Hartford and Springfield, up from six, and an average travel time of 81 minutes between Springfield and New Haven and 45 between Hartford and New Haven. When all improvements are completed, there will be 25 daily roundtrips.

Corridor ridership today on Amtrak, which will provide some of the new service in the expanded format with CTDOT next year, has about 300,000 annual riders now, a figure estimated to rise to about 750,000 within five years, Wray said, citing DOT numbers. Fewer vehicles on the road also translates to better air quality and less wear on highway infrastructure, he said.

Beyond rail, the CTfastrak busway, which launched in March 2015, has exceeded 7 million rides, providing improved access to 150,000 jobs nearby, Wray said.

"These things all have a lot of very important impacts, they're just hard to gauge in advance," he said.

DOT's proposed fares for the route, subject to a 35-day public comment period ending Nov. 27, range from $12.75 one-way from Springfield to New Haven and $8 from Hartford to New Haven. Discounts are proposed for seniors and the disabled.

The additional connectivity provided by the rail line also appeals to younger people, DOT's Bernick said, widening their options for where to live when considering their commutes.

"It makes Connecticut so much more marketable from attracting talent, attracting businesses that want to tap into that talent," Bernick said, anticipating transit-oriented development near train stations, some of which is already occurring.

The nearby train station in Windsor, one of the stops on the Hartford Line, is a plus for Hartford developer Martin Kenny, whose $23 million, 130-unit luxury Windsor Station Apartments are almost fully leased after opening earlier this year adjacent the station. Even before he broke ground and the volume of train service between Springfield and New Haven was announced, he considered proximity to the station a plus.

Now, with 12 trips a day between Hartford and Springfield, where many of his residents work in the medical community, he's thrilled.

"To me, it's going to make demand for our location better," Kenny said.

The other plus is Windsor town center's appeal, including restaurants, grocery and pharmacy, plus walkability.

"If you're not going to live in a city … you want to live in a town center that's got stuff," Kenny said.

Transportation issues

Russell McDermott, project manager at CTrides, a state Department of Transportation program that helps commuters and employers with information and resources for travel options like carpools, vanpools, bus, train, biking/walking and teleworking, expects the rail line will have a fairly significant impact on employment.

"You could make a case that there's a correlation between the employment for local companies and the amount of reach they have," McDermott said, noting the complementary connections to CTfastrak, CT Transit and more in the region. "You're able to connect to a broader employment market than you would have, let's say, without the rail line."

By increasing the mobility options for people, "I think you could make the case there … is going to be a big impact for companies," he said.

Employees save time, stress, gas and vehicle wear, he said.

CRCOG's Wray said it's difficult to predict what will happen with employment when the rail opens, but generally labor markets work better with improved transportation.

Two-thirds of I-91 corridor business leaders in the CBIA-Knowledge Corridor survey said traffic congestion and poor and deteriorating infrastructure are the most pressing transportation issues facing the region, with 21 percent citing the lack of mass-transit options.

Ninety percent of business leaders said expanding commuter rail service between Boston and Springfield would help their businesses and 91 percent said it would positively impact the region's economy.

DOT's Bernick said there's political traction in Springfield for additional service to Boston.

"Business leaders in Hartford start to salivate at that," he said of improved service from Boston hooking into service all the way to Washington, D.C.

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