OP-ED | Riding Into the Future on CTfastrak
This feels like a completely different place, I thought as I rode through Newington in the back of a brand new CTfastrak bus. It may not seem like much, but our new bus rapid transit line has already changed the way we look at Greater Hartford.
Fridays are my day off, so I decided to give my inner transit geek free reign and drove down to Newington, where I’d grown up, to walk the trail by the Newington Junction stop.
But what was the name of that place, again? Newington Junction was the name of a neighborhood back when the town had a station on the railway; the “junction” referred to two sets of tracks coming together at that spot. But when one set of tracks was abandoned and the station closed, the name went out of use. We never used it when I was growing up — I only found it because I was obsessed with old USGS maps.
But that dead old place is back from the grave in the form of a CTFastrak station. It stands where a gas station and a lumberyard were operating when I was growing up, and still are in my memory. I blinked, trying to clear 30 years from my vision, and set off walking down the multi-use trail towards the Cedar Street station.
I walked behind industrial areas and homes and swamps, trying to puzzle out where I was. The map of Newington is inscribed on my heart, I dream of its roads and intersections sometimes even now, but I found myself baffled by this new landscape. Maybe it’s just me getting older, but maybe it’s something else as well. When I finally reached the Cedar Street station, I only knew where I was because of the signs.
With that, I boarded a bus and rode down to New Britain. The ride was smooth and fast. Passengers stood next to their bikes, chatting as we whipped through the empty acreage around Route 9, toward the modern Downtown New Britain station.
A man I met at a downtown store said that people had been coming off the busway all day. Must be good for business, I said. “Good for the neighborhood,” he corrected, and he was right. I’d rarely ever seen so many people just walking around in New Britain, especially on a rainy day like that one.
When I boarded the bus for Hartford, I listened to the conversation around me. The riders were a diverse crowd; the bus looked like the Connecticut of the 21st century. “It’s like a subway,” one said. “Feels like a real city,” said another. It was incredible: here were people seeing their home with fresh eyes. When do we ever do that?
Change is like that, and the changes around here have only just begun. In another year or so fast, convenient commuter rail service on the I-91 corridor from creaky, desperate Springfield down through a suddenly wakeful Hartford to cool, lively New Haven will finally begin. The new baseball stadium will be done by next year, too, and the move of UConn-Hartford to the city’s downtown will be done not too long after that. Getting to Hartford will be easy, and people who don’t live in the city will have more reasons to go than ever before.
Even more importantly, the governor and the Department of Transportation want to get rid of the hulking barrier that is the I-84 viaduct downtown, replacing it with an at-grade/below-level highway or even a partial tunnel. I can’t imagine the city without that highway standing there, blocking off one half of the city from the other, but I know that tearing it down can only be a good thing.
Right now Hartford and the region are undergoing the most profound physical change we’ve seen since the 1960s and ‘70s, when the white population fled for the suburbs, the big department stores closed, and the builders and planners smothered downtown in a wasteland of highways and concrete.
Already, Hartford seems more alive than it has in my lifetime. The new bus rapid transit system is part of that, of course, but it’s more than just a ribbon of road and a bus line. It’s the belief, buried and forgotten like a place whose name had faded from the map, in our own dynamism and capacity for change.
I rode back to Newington Junction station and walked to my car in the pouring rain. It was good, I thought, to see the old place for what it is now, instead of what it was long ago.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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