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OP-ED | Riding Into the Future on CTfastrak

by | Apr 9, 2015 8:00pm () Comments | Commenting has expired | Share
Posted to: Analysis, Economic Development, Opinion, Transportation, Hartford, New Britain, Newington

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.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

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(7) Archived Comments

posted by: art vandelay | April 9, 2015  9:40pm

art vandelay

I too took the opportunity to ride the new Fastrack “busway” a week ago Sunday.  I’ve been an outspoken critic of it since its inception so I guess it was time to put my money where my mouth was.  I must admit however that I took advantage of the initial free ride period.

I travelled from the western part of the state to the town I was born in New Britain.  I have a deep fondness to the route Fastrack passes through.  As a young child I lived not far from the old railroad track that bisected East Main Street and Smalley.  I remember as a child walking on East Main toward Chamberlain School across the railroad tracks.  I was greeted each morning by a kind old lady who operated the railroad crossing gates.  She sat in a small shack with a pot belly stove waiting for a train to approach.  She would come out with a large crank and manually lower the gates. 

I also spent many an hour walking through Fairview Cemetery and viewing the graves of New Britain’s industrial giants. I remember the names of Stanley, Russwin, Corbin and Sloper. William T. Sloper was the son of New Britain National Bank’s president who survived the Titanic disaster in 1912.

Fairview Cemetery had a beautiful iron fence surrounding it until recently when vandals would remove the grates for its scrap metal value.  How sad.

At times when my business took me back to New Britain I would watch Fastrack being constructed and would wonder how it would all come together.
I was particularly worried about how Fairview Cemetery would be preserved, especially when I noticed large rippled sheet metal fences being constructed on the sides.  I was hoping they were only temporary.  Luckily the preservationists did an excellent job in preserving the old fence.

When I arrived in New Britain, I thought I would be greeted with signs to a commuter parking lot where I could park my car & ride the bus.  WRONG!  The closest parking facility was the Municipal Garage behind City Hall on Washington Street.  It’s a good hike from the garage to the station.  If you are not a municipal employee working at City Hall, don’t even think of parking on the first 3 floors of the garage.  Pray that the elevator is working.  If not expect to walk lots of stairs.  The parking is metered.  If you’re spending the day in Hartford, expect a ticket on your windshield upon your return.

Upon arrival to the Fastrack Station forget about using any facilities.  There are none.  If an emergency arises, good luck!
I waited 20 minutes for the bus to arrive.  It was standing room only. Lots of families with their children out for a days adventure.

During my 20 minute wait I struck up a conversation with a guide.  I learned that the New Britain station was not designed for commuters coming by car.  The station was in essence a terminal for feeder busses arriving from commuter lots in Waterbury, Cheshire, Bristol and other outlying communities.
Story to be continued.

posted by: art vandelay | April 9, 2015  10:22pm

art vandelay

Part II

I just can’t see parking my car in a commuter lot, boarding a bus only to board another bus to get to Hartford.  If I want to shop at West Farms or have an appointment at the UConn Medical Center, I have to board another bus.  Too many busses in my opinion.  It’s easier just to continue in my car to the destination I desire.

The station in New Britain besides being void of necessary facilities was also minus a waiting area protected from the elements.

The bus ride was indeed fast with very quick stops.  As I approached CCUS I questioned why the stop was not located closer to the campus.  Students desiring to visit Hartford have a considerable walk from the Student Center to the station.  Not well thought out from my viewpoint.

I did notice two very small commuter lots next to the stations in Newington and one in West Hartford.  These I believe will fill up quickly if Fastrack catches on.

My biggest surprise was when I arrived at the midpoint Hartford.  I was left off on the side of the road not too far from Union Station and Soldiers Monument.  No station, no signs, no nothing.

If my destination was the XL Center, it was either walk or wait for a connecting bus.  Same for downtown.  The connecting bus identification system is quite confusing.  Three digit numbers can get confusing.  I think colors letters like subways in New York or Boston would be far superior.

My goal was to have a nice lunch on Front Street next to the Convention Center.  To my surprise the closest connecting bus went as close as Main Street.  Why not a bus to the Convention Center, Science Museum & the XL Theater.  It’s quite a hike from the Wadsworth.  I ended up walking from the phantom terminus near Union Station to Front St.

I sincerely tried to give Fastrack every benefit I could, but my end conclusion is that it is a bust especially for people who reside in the suburbs.  I don’t see anyone rushing to Fastrack as an alternative to avoiding traffic congestion on 84.

People will be hard pressed to abandon the comforts of a personal automobile in favor of mass transit.  Mass transit only works in large cities like Boston, New York or Washington D.C.

Does Fastrack have potential?  Most certainly.  I wish it well and hope it succeeds.  I still believe in my initial opinion that it was a total waste of taxpayers money that could have been directed towards much greater and better use.

posted by: art vandelay | April 10, 2015  9:16am

art vandelay

I appreciated your warm childhood memories growing up in Newington.  When I was in my early elementary grades, my family moved to Berlin.  The one fond memory I have visiting relatives in nearby Newington was Edmond’s Dairy.  They manufactured their own ice cream and was the best I ever tasted.  The best homemade ice cream today I know of today is Arethusa’s in Bantam.  If you’re an ice cream connoisseur like me a trip to Bantam is well worth it.

posted by: CTQOL | April 10, 2015  11:18am

I have ridden Fastrak on several occasions and have been generally impressed by the service. There are kinks to be worked out, but the system promises to boost the efficiency and ridership of transit services in central Connecticut, especially among those who are willing to think outside the box of auto-dependency that has predominated in the region for far too long.

As such, although I applaud commenter “Art Vandelay” for exploring the system, I think his criticisms are overly rooted in an auto-dependent mindset. For those who insist on living in a place where they will have to drive to get anywhere, any kind of transit is going to be difficult to access. (That’s another reason transit-oriented development is so important; it will expand opportunities to walk to stations). Pedestrianism is intricately connected to transit success, as walkable neighborhoods feed transit nodes, and transit dramatically expands the number of destinations accessible to pedestrians. Although we must accept that most people will own or share cars, we should also acknowledge that things have gotten out of hand when people expect to be able to drive within 100 feet of any destination and park for free (which involves a considerable subsidy).

If people insisted instead on living in neighborhoods served by sidewalks and were open to walking half a mile to reach a destination, our land use patterns would produce more vibrant neighborhoods, we would save massive amounts of time and money on auto-related costs (parking, fuel and congestion, not to mention environmental externalities), and (owing to the regular exercise that comes with walking for useful trips) have a healthier population. Although it is encouraging to see millennials eschewing car ownership and moving to walkable neighborhoods, the process of shifting from an auto-dependent to a transit-oriented and active-pedestrian mindset will take time. Fastrak is one important step in that direction.

posted by: gjn | April 10, 2015  3:38pm

I ride Fastrak every weekday to get to my office downtown from the Flatbush Avenue station, and I like it very much!

posted by: jimnct | April 11, 2015  8:02pm

First, when I am in large cities I make extensive use of mass transit,  Boston, NYC, Paris, London , When visiting NYC I take the train and take subways and taxis’ or walk around the city. I also occasionally use CT Transit.  However, the normal commuter buses have a huge issue.  They stop running between 5:30 and 6:30 PM. For those of us not working for the State or the apparently the insurance companies the buses don’t run often enough.  I frequently need to work late and the normal bus does not work.  Fastrak would solve that but it hardly seems prudent to sell a nice house and move to the industrial areas of Newington, or West Hartford. Indeed if I wanted to be convenient to work, I would far more likely move to a nice apartment in downtown Hartford and walk to work.  I just don’t see the volume of people moving close enough to Fastrak to ever make it more than a financial disaster.  Sure for those who live close, fine.  But some have pointed out the major failures.  No protection from the elements at either terminus, a parking garage at the New Britain end that is a couple of blocks walk from the station. My parking garage downtown is 1/2 block from my building. On bad weather days that is nice.

I am sure if Fastrak is convenient to you, it has significant advantages for you.

posted by: art vandelay | April 13, 2015  12:21am

art vandelay

It was explained to me by a representative from Fastrack that the system is designed to transform our transportation system from automobiles to mass transit.  What will come next are incentives to create housing near the system while making it cost prohibitive to live in the suburbs.  It’s called social engineering at a massive scale.

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