Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy live-tweeted (and filmed) his commute from Milford to Norwalk this morning. Nutmeggers joined in the conversation, using the hashtag #FedUp, to tell the senator about their commutes: two hours to drive 30 miles, an hour-long bus commute from Farmington to Hartford, having to stand for the whole trip between New Haven and Grand Central.
In Connecticut, the vast majority (78.7 percent) of commuters drive alone. That’s slightly higher than the national average of 76.4 percent. All those single-occupant vehicles has helped to land Connecticut’s three largest metro areas among the worst in the nation for traffic congestion: Fairfield County commuters lost the most hours due to congestion of all medium-sized metro areas besides Honolulu, while Metro Hartford lost the fourth-most, and Greater New Haven, the eighth-most.
@ChrisMurphyCT Time for investment in new infrastructure, Senator. Time to take our mass transit into the 21st century, like other countries
— Zymetrix (@zymetrix) October 15, 2015
Connecticut also has low transit ridership, despite being home to the nation’s single busiest commuter rail line. The share of Nutmeg State commuters who ride transit to work is 4.8 percent, slightly lower than the national average of 5 percent.
It’s also worth noting that in the northeastern United States, only Connecticut and Vermont have no highway tolls.
So if one were to craft a narrative around these facts, it might go something like, “Connecticut’s transit system doesn’t adequately serve the needs of most commuters. And because all of the state’s roads are free to drive on, most people drive alone to work. This has resulted in some of the worst traffic congestion in the nation.”
@ChrisMurphyCT not just more reliable trains but options to connect 'last mile' from station to job sites: fast bus transfers and light rail
— Eric Hoover (@EricDHoover) October 15, 2015
One part of the solution is better transit. The launch of CTfastrak and the roll-out of more frequent Metro-North service is a good start, and soon there will be 17 trains each day between New Haven and Hartford. Plans to expand CTfastrak and enhance the Metro-North Waterbury branch are underway, and there’s already some momentum behind bringing better bus service to Fairfield County and Greater New Haven.
Another part of the solution is to guide development in a way that takes advantage of transit. New Jersey has been doing this for years, but transit-oriented development is still a relatively new concept in Connecticut. More homes near transit helps people drive less, but TOD shouldn’t be limited to residential development. People whose jobs are close to transit are less likely to drive to work than those whose homes are near transit (but whose jobs are not). Think of it this way: someone who lives three miles from a Metro-North station in Connecticut can easily drive or bike to a station and walk to their office in Manhattan. It’s not as easy for someone who lives in Manhattan, surrounded by transit options, to commute to an office situated three miles away from the nearest Metro-North station.
At one point, Senator Murphy’s Twitter conversation turned to an idea that Governor Malloy has been pushing lately: widening highways.
— Tri-State (@Tri_State) October 15, 2015
Widening a highway increases capacity, which would solve the congestion problem if — and that’s a huge if — the number of vehicles using that highway doesn’t change. But history shows that just doesn’t happen. It’s a phenomenon known as generated traffic, which can be explained through an economic concept called induced demand. Expanding highway capacity reduces the time cost of driving, that is, when supply goes up, cost goes down. But as a good becomes cheaper, demand for that good increases. This isn’t a problem with most goods — just produce more — but if we tried to do this with highways, we would have to build so many roads that there would be nowhere left worth driving to.
So perhaps instead of increasing supply — which, by the way, costs a lot of money — Connecticut should be managing demand. This would require putting a price on congestion through the implementation of variable-price, all-electronic, open road tolling. Believe it or not, a majority of Connecticut voters — 62 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of Republicans — support highway tolls if revenues are used only for transportation purposes (though this hasn’t kept decision makers from perpetuating a myth that tolls are unpopular).
It doesn't have to be this way. Your commute doesn't have to be a terrible part of your day every day. We can fix this. #FedUp
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) October 15, 2015
Senator Murphy is right when he says “Your commute doesn’t have to be a terrible part of your day every day.” But it’s going to take a governor who is willing to abandon costly highway widening projects, and a legislature that can pass (and an electorate that will vote for) a constitutional amendment to ensure that transportation funds are not diverted to other uses. Once those transportation funds are secure, the state can take advantage of the exemption it was granted by the Federal Highway Adminstration which allows variable-price highway tolls on its most congested corridors. Then, the revenue those tolls generate could be invested in new and improved transit services that give drivers an alternative to paying tolls.
And now we’ve come full circle.