Development following New England high-speed rail

May 28, 2011, 8:09 pm
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WINDSOR LOCKS, Conn. (AP) - Surrounded by broken asphalt and sprouting weeds, the boarded-up, 150-year-old train station is still a thing of beauty to Steven N. Wawruck Jr.

For more than three years, Windsor Locks' first selectman has been trying to persuade the state Department of Transportation to allow the town to move the historic building closer to downtown Main Street. He wants to rejuvenate the brick building and transform it into a restaurant or other business that could help revitalize the center of Windsor Locks, damaged by urban renewal in the 1970s.

In towns and cities throughout the 350-mile corridor between New Haven and Montreal, officials like Wawruck are anticipating high-speed commuter and interstate rail. They're now making initial plans to refurbish train stations into retail and office space as the first step toward remaking downtowns as pedestrian-friendly residential, commercial and shopping districts.

Springfield, Mass., officials plan to spend $75 million to renovate downtown's Union Station to add office and retail space.

And in Burlington, Vt., a former train station houses a health club, offices and space for fundraisers.

"It's not just about the train service," said Timothy Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission in Springfield, Mass. "It's how train service becomes a catalyst for development. There are areas that can stand revitalization."

The Obama administration has committed $8 billion in stimulus funding for high-speed rail nationally. Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont have received nearly $200 million.

Transportation planners are working to upgrade tracks from New York to New Haven, north through Connecticut to Springfield, into Vermont and eventually to Montreal. Plans also call for upgraded east-west rail service in Massachusetts and connections between Boston and New Hampshire cities.

So-called transit-oriented development seeks to halt urban sprawl, revitalize urban centers and promote better environmental policies. If residents use cars less frequently, it is expected that auto emissions should be reduced.

David Fink, policy director for the Partnership for Strong Communities, a statewide housing policy organization in Connecticut, said pressure likely will build for constructing new houses near downtown rail stations as high-speed rail is introduced throughout this decade. Households typically spend a third of their income on housing and nearly 20 percent on transportation, which can be reduced with housing closer to rail stations, he said.

"'The economics of putting housing near transit are undeniable," Fink said. "The problem in Connecticut is we don't have a lot of experience with those things. What are you going to do to avoid land speculation? What kind of planning is going on? This can be done well or not so well."

In Springfield, Mass., revamping Union Station, scheduled by 2014, could lead to an expanded housing market, said Chris Moskal, the city's interim chief development officer.

"This is truly an economic spinoff for anywhere the train will come through," he said.

In Greenfield, Mass., a bus station with office space will be built by December, and officials expect it will also serve as a station for high-speed rail. Tina Cote, administrator for the Franklin Regional Transit Authority there, said the $10 million construction project at the 1.8-acre site will provide access to an adjacent north-south freight rail line with the expectation that it will eventually be used for high-speed rail. The downtown site also is adjacent to retail shops and housing, Cote said.

Melinda Moulton, a developer in Burlington, Vt., secured $1.5 million from federal and state sources to revamp the city's train station, making it accessible to the handicapped, adding space for an artist and renting out space for events such as dinners and fundraisers for nonprofit organizations. Service on the Champlain Flyer commuter train ended in 2003, so all that's needed now is a train, she said.

"I've been patiently and arduously trying to get rail back to Burlington," Moulton said.

Vermont transportation officials expect to spend $87,000 to buy a privately-owned train station in White River Junction to make sure it is not lost to a private developer, said Chris Cole, director of policy planning and intermodal development at the Vermont Transportation Agency. The agency has no immediate plans for the station.

"Right now the primary importance is getting possession of the property," he said. "We'll look later at what to do with the station."

In Connecticut, state transportation officials have balked at the proposed new location for the train station in Windsor Locks. They are wary of having trains intersect with motor vehicle traffic and foresee the possibility of large traffic jams.

Still, Wawruck is determined. With Bradley International Airport, the railroad and a canal nearby, Windsor Locks has been a transportation hub, he said, "and we want to get back to that."

"It seems to be a never-ending battle. We keep plodding along," Wawruck said. "There are a lot of studies, a lot of meetings. I see light at the end of the tunnel."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

Tags: barack Obama, massachusetts, connecticut, New England, vermont, funding, high-speed rail
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