Goldblatt explains need for regional train station in Orange
On Dec. 19 the South Central Regional Council of Governments voted to endorse a new train station in West Haven. Unfortunately this vote has little to do with, and without regard for, what is in the best interest of the region. While a train station, if it ever proves to be economically viable, may help West Haven rid itself of a blighted industrial brownfield, a station located in Orange will far more benefit the entire region.
The purpose of a new station is to resolve the transportation problems of our region. Just a week before this vote, the Orange site was strongly endorsed by the Council's own Transportation Committee. Through political strong-arming, the need for a train station to address regional transportation issues was lost and the objective, inappropriately, became providing an economic development project for West Haven instead of transportation for the region.
If we remove the emotional argument that "West Haven needs a station more than Orange" and look at the facts, a reasonable person will conclude that this recommendation to the Transportation Strategy Board is a disservice to the taxpayers of the State of Connecticut as well as to the commuters of the region.
The South Central Regional Council of Governments requested an independent report from the Connecticut Department of Transportation, commonly known as the Harris Report, so that this inter-community dispute would never happen. I publicly stated that I would abide by the results of such a report and asked my counterparts in West Haven to do the same. However, when the Harris Report was released and concluded that "the preferred option is the Orange site", West Haven instead dug in its heels, hired its own biased engineers, and launched an all-out crusade to overturn the impartial findings.
West Haven Mayor Richard Borer and New Haven Mayor John DeStefano convinced enough of their fellow Mayors and First Selectmen to ignore independent reports and the Transportation Committee vote and recommend that the station be located in West Haven as an economic "reward" for supporting dense neighborhoods, large employers, and non-profit institutions, which, they claimed, enrich the suburban towns at no cost. Of course this is nonsense as it is the suburban tax dollar that the State uses to fund the big cities. I support economic development in our major urban centers and recognize their importance to the economic viability of the region. However, we are not dealing with an issue of supporting a project for economic development but to meet a crying transportation need.
We are now being asked to work as neighbors to support this decision. The clear facts weigh against our ability to acquiesce.
At nine miles, the New Haven to Milford stretch of the Metro North Railroad is the longest without a current station. The West Haven location is only 2.5 miles from New Haven, while the Orange site is almost exactly at the midpoint. More importantly, it is directly off of the recently reconstructed Marsh Hill Road Exit 41, with an easy path to the proposed access road. Saw Mill Road reconstruction has yet to begin and even when completed will not be wide enough to handle the additional traffic.
West Haven has proposed a pedestrian tunnel under the tracks for access to its station. Not only does the Department of Transportation strongly discourage this option, but it is uninviting to potential commuters. In contrast, the Orange site offers a commuter-friendly parking garage that would keep cars out of inclement weather and provide a station on level property.
There is currently a 400-person waiting list for a parking spot at the Milford station. Many of these existing commuters would utilize the Orange site, but how many will travel "in reverse" to West Haven, where the fare would probably be higher, to head back towards New York? By their own admission, the West Haven station will draw from West Haven residents, where a station in Orange will draw from parts of West Haven, Orange, Milford, Woodbridge, and Bethany, a full one-third of the number of communities in the region.
West Haven touts the number of people that live within a short distance of the proposed site. However, people don't ride the rails for fun. This is a business decision and that is why both the Harris Report and the study done for the Regional Growth Partnership (RGP) support the fact that more commuters will use the Orange location. After all, that was the original goal of the Council of Governments in the first place. Everyone, including Mayor Borer vowed to support the location that will get the most cars off of I-95. When did this basic criteria change?
If that wasn't enough, both the Harris Report and the RGP study show that the Orange station can be completed and in operation sooner. With the impending 12-year construction cycle about to begin on the Quinnipiac River Bridge, this should have carried more weight in the decision.
But to top it all off, the Harris Report showed that due to the additional construction required in West Haven as well as the 27 properties that would need to be acquired as opposed to four in Orange, that the West Haven station would cost approximately $9.5 Million more than the Orange station. Did someone forget that it is the taxpayers of the State of Connecticut that are paying for this station? In times of a fiscal crisis, when the thought of any new station may be in jeopardy, how can we support the higher cost station that gets less cars off the road, takes longer to build, and is not supported by any independent study or the Council of Governments Transportation Committee?
Yes, the Council of Governments vote recommends the West Haven site, but is it a vote for the region or against the region? The commuters in the region and the taxpayers of Connecticut were dealt a disservice by this vote. It is for these reasons, that I feel it is my responsibility to appeal this recommendation to the Transportation Strategy Board, the Commissioner of the Department of Transportation, and the Governor. To sit back and accept this decision on face value does far more harm to the region than it does to Orange or West Haven. If we are going to act like a region, then let's not forget why we were looking to build a new station in the first place. It is our duty to resolve a transportation crisis for a region and not an economic development issue for a single city. The need to overturn the Council of Governments vote is imperative.
This column is by First Selectman Mitchell Goldblatt in response to the decision to build a train station in West Haven and not in Orange.