Make Transit a Downtown Priority and Get the Details Right

This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Hartford Courant.  Supplemental italicized text and graphics in this post are intended to lend further clarity to the issues presented in the original text. Your correspondent previously served as the City's Complete Streets Coordinator and has been involved in several of the projects discussed.


Acres of parking in the shadow of tens of
thousands of jobs and the State Capitol
As recent research at the University of Connecticut indicates, too much surface parking is bad for downtowns. Citing Hartford as an example, the study finds that large swaths of blacktop drive down the value of surrounding property, making development less likely, which in turn begets more parking. In spite of being the highest concentration of jobs in the entire State, the conclusion of this unfortunate spiral is a place with plenty of parking but not much to do after you park.

A big part of the solution is improved transit, and with fewer than 10 percent of downtown Hartford employees currently using transit, there’s room for improvement.

The current bus system, while imperfect, is fairly robust, and in 2015, CTfastrak will create a fast and reliable car-free option from New Britain to Hartford, serving points in between and beyond. In 2016, the state Department of Transportation’s implementation of the New Haven Hartford Springfield rail program will triple service to Union Station. This is a big deal.

CTfastrak local service map (www.ctfastrak.com)
New Haven-Hartford-Springfield service map (www.nhhsrail.com)

However, just as the best retailers know that offering good products and being near foot traffic aren’t always enough, maximizing transit ridership is about more than building the infrastructure. It’s about enhancing the convenience of the service so current passengers get the most out of it and newcomers want to try it.

If they miss this point, the new Hartford bus and rail services will sell themselves short.

Union Station

The greater Hartford Transit District, as part of the City's Intermodal Triangle Project,  is making pedestrian-oriented improvements to Union Place.  The station's Great Hall will become much more accessible and a new transit center will be added next to the main hall for newly routed buses from east-of the-river. The result will be a much-improved approach to the City's intercity travel hub.

Streetscape improvements designed for Union Place (Tai Soo Kim Architects). Construction beginning in Spring 2014

In anticipation of other forthcoming improvements, the Hartford Business improvement District, together with the City and the Transit District, has added new signage to Union Station, providing orientation and helping to better position the Station toward Asylum Street.

Asylum Street for St. Patrick's Day Parade (ctnow.com)

Union Station Transportation Center,
next to the Great Hall
The DOT is planning to spend $2.6 million to build an elevated platform at Union Station to increase boarding speed and make for a more pleasant modern travel experience. This is a good idea. However, the current design requires passengers to walk nearly 200 additional feet north on a narrow walkway from the waiting area stairs. It also misses the opportunity to utilize the station’s historic great hall as a welcoming entry to the City. Instead, trains will continue to be accessed through the busy bus station known as the "Transportation Center." 

Yale's Vincent Scully once said of the demolition and subsequent reconstruction of New York's Penn Station "One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat." You might not exactly scuttle in like a rat to Hartford today, but creating a more dignified arrival to the Capital City can do wonders in changing perception.
Union Station's Great Hall begs to be put back to use as a transportation hub
Union Station used to have more than the single track it has today. ConnDOT's planned platform improvements are focused on the central platform adjacent to the existing track.  The platform between the Great Hall and the former second track will go untouched.  According to the Department, a second track is not necessary to operate the soon-to-be increased service and will not be added until the whole viaduct structure is reconstructed.
A ConnDOT rendering of the elevated platform (right) illustrating how it is accessed 

A section of the platform improvements by the Connecticut Department of Transportation
An elevation of the platform improvements by the Connecticut Department of Transportation

The other problem with the current design is one of ridership and infrastructure capacity.  The current platform design, because of restrictions on stopping on a curve and the location of the existing platforms' glass headhouses, is limited to letting about three railroad cars meet the platform.  Even today, Amtrak's Vermonter and Northeast Regional services (see this previous post for a breakdown of existing service at Union Station) operate longer trains than that. If ridership on the forthcoming New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter service exceeds projections, (which is not an unusual occurrence), the department will have to delay the addition of new cars and or bear the expense of rebuilding the platform to accommodate them. Both of these could be avoided by building in a little extra capacity at the start.

At the end of the day, this looks like a bare-bones effort to meet the minimum standards of the American's with Disabilities Act (ADA), not to create a first-rate travel experience for all users or anticipate exceeded ridership projections. However, the department is unwilling to consider bolder alternatives because of possible track relocation related to the transformative reconstruction of I-84. According to Commissioner Redeker, those changes are almost 20 years away. 
Big-Time changes to the face of Downtown Hartford if I-84 is rebuilt and the railroad is shifted (credit - Tri-State Transportation Campaign)

Providing a sub-par rail experience at the system’s busiest station for a generation because of uncertain billion-dollar highway improvements demonstrates a serious lack of commitment to growing ridership on the new service.  Half the country away, on the other hand, the city of Saint Paul just refurbished their historic Union Depot in anticipation of the restoration of Amtrak service. These are the types of places that private investment chooses to then flow.  Victoria says that Hartford is trying, and it looks like Saint Paul is trying harder, but there's no reason changes can't be made.

Two blocks east, the governor has announced funding for over $30 million of hospitality-oriented improvements to the XL Center “to get eight to ten years out of it, frankly.” Union Station merits similar consideration.

Here's an alternative.  If, instead, an elevated platform were built over the abandoned and removed track area, it could be nearly as long as you want it to be, be significantly easier to access, and be seamlessly connected to the Great Hall.  The Great Hall, even without a major overhaul of any kind, could then be the primary station for rail passengers, allowing more space to be dedicated to intercity bus (Greyhound etc) passengers in the Transportation Center below. This would certainly take more than the currently dedicated $2.6M and might even take an additional year or two to get done, but the result would be several years of high quality station experience until such time when the whole railroad is shifted as part of the I-84 project.
A section of an alternative platform improvement
A section of an alternative platform improvement

A basic 3-D model, showing the Great Hall (right), existing station-adjacent platform (right-center), multiple stairs and ramps (left-center), and an elevated platform over the un-used track area. 

CTfastrak and Local Bus Service

Meanwhile, today’s local bus system notoriously congests Main Street. It also leaves east-of-the-river routes stranded on Market Street and doesn’t give buses from the west direct access to the XL Center or office buildings around Trumbull Street. Furthermore, the system is very difficult to understand as an unfamiliar rider because inbound and outbound stops, particularly on western routes, are often not across the street from one another, and the system as a whole lacks directional signage and iconography informing you how the service operates — none of these conditions are good for downtown or make for a system that successfully attracts new passengers.
Transit Routing Today in Downtown Hartford
The current challenges of the bus system are rooted in the fact that all services terminate at the core of the downtown instead of going through.  For example, northbound buses must stop in front of the the Wadsworth Atheneum and Old State House because western buses are using the Travelers block of Main Street to recover any extra time (which is why they seem to "sit" for a long time) and turn back westward on Asylum Street.  

The City was awarded a federal grant (the TIGER-Funded Intermodal Triangle) two years ago to improve the pedestrian experience from Union Station to Main Street and make changes to bus routing to improve service and maximize the impact of CTfastrak. In 2012, city, state and regional transportation officials determined that reopening the historic “isle of safety” at the Old State House and utilizing Pearl and Asylum Streets could create direct, convenient downtown access and ease pressure on Main Street.

Transit Routing as Planned by the City of Hartford, Capital Region Council of Governments, and Connecticut Department of Transportation in 2012

Bus lane on Chestnut St. in Philly
The 2012 plan sought to alleviate the current system shortcomings by having eastern and western routes pass through the downtown, instead of terminating in the most congested areas.  This way, recovery time for western routes could happen on Grove Street instead of in front of the Travelers and eastern routes could get all the way to Union Station instead of ending at Market Street.  This allowed for a decongestion of buses from Main Street without hampering the service at all. The plan hinged on turning Asylum Street into a two-way street, with only buses permitted in the newly-opened eastbound direction.

However, concerns raised by local retailers, primarily about the proposed bus-only lane, seem to have led DOT officials to throw up their hands and abandon the agreement on routing.

As a result, Farmington Avenue buses from the west will become less convenient to the heart of Downtown, Pearl Street will continue to be used as a parking lot by commuter buses, CTfastrak won’t directly serve the XL Center, and Main Street will have even more buses than today, with the addition of western routes terminate on the block just north of Asylum Street.  With CTfastrak expected to replant the stops of today's western routes, one must conclude that northbound routes will continue to stop in front of the Atheneum and Old State House.  

Neither CTfastrak nor western routes appear to deliver people directly to destinations like the XL Center, City Place, or State House Square without meandering for a while first.  But Asylum, the City's central east-west street, use used for a quick and convenient exit from downtown. The plan below risks perpetuating an observation frequently made about Hartford - it's confusing to get to your destination, but really easy to leave.  

A city aspiring to be transit-oriented needs to make destinations convenient to get to and not let its transportation undermine its placemaking efforts.
Transit Routing as Inferred to be Planned by the Connecticut Department of Transportation
By disengaging when controversy arose and following the apparent path of least resistance, we could exacerbate current problems and undermine the new service. The 2012 plan may not have been the right one, but stakeholders need to come together for a better solution than this.

Stakeholders should work together to make sense of the many interrelated implications of transit routing choices as a reflection of their values.  That being said, below is one alternative among many permutations for responding to the concerns of retailers and property owners in a way that does not worsen existing conditions or undercut the goals of the new, potentially transformative CTfastrak service. 
An Alternative Transit Routing Among Many
The Department's current plan is based on the premise that commuter buses, which operate only during rush-hour, must occupy Pearl Street (which, as residents have noted, can be a real headache because of the time they often wait to get moving), pushing local service to other streets.  If, instead, local all-day service were prioritized, the Pearl Street alignment of eastern and western routes could be realized and Main Street could achieve its goal of being less of a "bus depot."

With regard to CTfastrak, it can be much more effective if it doesn't run the long loop of today's western routes.  If, instead, it traveled inbound and outbound on Spruce, Church, and Trumbull Streets, it would hit major destinations and be much easier to understand by having stops on both sides of each street.  

The challenge is determining how to turn CTfastrak around in a way that doesn't recreate current problems.  This is where part of the 2012 plan could be resurrected by making the eastern block of Asylum Street a two-way street (with only transit permitted eastbound) and opening a single lane of upper State Street (instead of two-way).  This way, the terminating stop of CTfastrak could be at the core of the city at the Old State House (without impacting on the commercial property on the north side).  Furthermore, unlike the western blocks of Asylum Street, the implementing a bus-only lane on the eastern blocks wouldn't involve a bus stop requires the elimination of no on-street parking spaces. As an added bonus, but for the rush hour period when they'd have to accommodate suburban commuter buses, the eastern and central blocks of Asylum Street (Trumbull to High) could have parking on both sides of the street... Even more than today. And that's a good thing for retail.


Whether at Union Station or on downtown streets, improved transit is one piece of the puzzle to make Hartford more livable, accessible and development-oriented. But transit will only flourish if the city and state work with the community to make it a priority and realize a vision in which parking is no longer the best use of prime downtown land. We still have that opportunity; let’s get it right.

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