On Tuesday night, a crowd of mostly 20-somethings pressed into a designer New Haven pizzeria to listen to transportation officials talk about trains, specifically the new Hartford Line which kicks off in May. (Hartford Courant file photo)
With the launching of a commuter train between Hartford and New Haven just weeks away, David Donahue was both excited at the prospect of bypassing I-91 on his daily commute, and slightly incredulous it had taken this long for the state to link its capitals of government and higher education by rail.
Donahue’s is a tale of two cities: The 31-year-old works in Windsor Locks as an engineer for UTC Aerospace Systems but lives in New Haven, which he chose for its walking-friendly charm and a nightlife he felt was livelier than Hartford’s. He’s used to slogging up and down I-91. But come May, Donahue plans to catch one of the 17 round-trip trains running each day between Springfield and New Haven, when the state unveils its much-requested and, many say, long-overdue, Hartford Line.
On Tuesday night, a crowd pressed into a designer New Haven pizzeria to listen to transportation officials talk about trains. The group leaned young and bearded.
“For my group of friends — a bunch of guys all in our late 20s — public transit is something we’re definitely looking forward to,” said Andrew Wheeler, a resident of Hartford’s West End.
The Hartford Line will be operated by a new entity, CT Rail, and run along existing Amtrak-owned tracks between Springfield and New Haven. But rather than the six round trips Amtrak currently offers per day, the Hartford Line will make 17 daily round trips. A trip from New Haven to Hartford will take about 45 minutes with stops in Meriden, Berlin and Wallingford.
The state’s transportation chiefs are staking $769 million on the project, which it says will ferry passengers 600,000 times a year, save millions of gallons of fuel, reduce air pollution by tens of thousands of metric tons and take more than 1 million cars off I-91 by 2030.
Wheeler, a 29-year-old bartender at Hanging Hills Brewery, made the trip to New Haven Tuesday night to pitch ideas to Department of Transportation officials at the forum, which was put on by Go New Haven Go, an alternative transportation initiative. He asked they consider coordinating with the Hartford Yard Goats to funnel people from outlying towns into the city’s downtown on game nights, and that they arrange a bus line connecting the railway’s terminus in Springfield to the new MGM casino.
“Hartford has a lot to offer, and for a long time, it’s been looked at as a city that’s forgotten or not worth it,” Wheeler said. “I grew up in Vernon, in suburban Connecticut, and went to Hartford twice in my childhood. Twenty minutes from Hartford, and I went there twice. That needs to change if we want Hartford to thrive. Building a rail system that connects not only New Haven to Hartford, but New York to New Haven to Hartford — that’s a big thing.”
Sri Muthu, who heads the Elm City Innovation Collaboration, said the work he’s trying to do — foster a humming startup culture among one of the most university-heavy and highly educated regions in the country — is made much more difficult by central Connecticut’s lack of nimble and easy-to-use public transportation.
Recently, he said a group of UConn students with designs for a health care startup wanted to work with his group in New Haven but had difficulty arranging rides.
“We’re excited that they want to come here,” Muthu said, “but we need to make people feel they can get here, so that way they’ll want to come here.”
Muthu was excited by the new rail line, and asked the transportation officials to consider a single-payer card, similar to Britain’s Oyster Card, which can be used for all of London’s Underground, buses and shuttles.
“Having one card means one less barrier I need to think about,” he said.
Richard Andreski, the state’s bureau chief of public transportation, injected a note of caution amid the commuters’ relief and the entrepreneurs’ giddiness.
The state’s transportation fund is dwindling, he warned, and while the Hartford Line’s rollout is not in jeopardy, future projects — like stations in North Haven and West Hartford — have been put on hold. Some in the audience criticized the line’s unveiling, when service on Metro North’s Shore Line East is being curtailed.
“I love the vision, but you can’t cut one thing, start another, and think it’s all going to work,” said Jerry Pizunski, a transit union representative whose city, New London, is being affected by the Shore Line East cuts.
“The timing is unfortunate,” Andreski acknowledged. “We’re introducing new services as we’re taking away existing ones — in some ways, it’s a right-pocket, left-pocket situation.”
But Siobhan Merrill was thankful. Unlike most of the attendees, for whom the train represented an alternative way of commuting or an avenue to revelry unencumbered by designated drivers, Merrill, 55, said the train would allow her to go back to work.
She doesn’t have a car, and said she had to pass up jobs in Wallingford and Meriden because there was no way to get from her New Haven home to outlying towns without one.
“There’s been jobs I could have gotten, but there was no way for me to get there,” she said. “I don’t understand how this is something we haven’t had for years and years.”