Does Light Rail Make Sense For Connecticut?

April 23, 2009

In a rare moment outside the halls of the Capitol building, I was provided an opportunity to experience a relatively new light rail system during a recent business trip to Charlotte, North Carolina.

For those of you who have not experienced this type of transportation, light rail is a continuously running electric railway system that takes advantage of rails at street level, underground and overhead. While visiting Charlotte, I paid $3 to take the 14 mile light rail round trip between the suburbs and downtown. These trains make frequent stops at the convention center, basketball arena, hotels, and retail and corporate centers. This smart, clean and convenient ride is extremely popular, and the voters overwhelmingly approved the plans now underway to double the size and reach of their light rail system.

I am cautiously optimistic about the potential benefits of developing light rail in Connecticut. As the sponsor of proposed legislation calling for the State Department of Transportation to determine which regions of our state could benefit from light rail service, it was valuable to see a successful operation in action. According to Connecticut Transportation Commissioner Joseph Marie, this type of mass transit is successful in other states and a feasibility study may show Stamford to be a good candidate for light rail service because of its high density and traffic volume.

A thorough study would include a look at successful light rail systems like the one in Charlotte to determine what aspects of these successful systems would work well in Connecticut. Before making a huge financial commitment to light rail anywhere in our state, we need a great deal of information, including whether it would appeal to commuters and if such a mass transit system would promote economic growth.

We can draw certain parallels between our areas. Charlotte is the epicenter of American banking, home to Bank of America, Wachovia and Wells Fargo. Business and government leaders in Charlotte are working hard to diversify from the finance sector into biotechnology, healthcare, energy and logistics. Here in Connecticut, our state’s dismal fiscal situation and government budget deficit can be linked to a lack of economic diversification, punitive tax policies, and unbridled state spending. Like Charlotte, Connecticut must take a close look at what we do right, and what we do wrong, with an eye to reinventing state government to promote strong economic growth.

As an added benefit, the Charlotte light rail system has encouraged smart land use policies. For example, high quality development has sprung up near the new stations established to accommodate light rail commuters. Could developing light rail in certain, carefully chosen, regions of Connecticut promote diverse economic growth here? A well designed feasibility study could answer that question, and provide other information we need in order to proceed intelligently. Connecticut Transportation Commissioner Marie told legislators he has seen 17 out of 18 light rail systems succeed throughout the nation. In his experience, density is the number one issue and a study may show Stamford to have the right attributes for success.

Connecticut cannot presently afford to make a huge financial commitment to light rail. However, our state will eventually emerge from this recession, and it is in our best interests to spend this time looking into how we can promote economic growth when the time is right. Regardless of what form it takes, faster, more convenient, and environmentally-friendly mass transit will play a key role in the future success of our state. Light rail may be an option worth exploring.