#FedUp with Congestion, Senator Murphy Seeks to Solve Connecticut’s Commuting Problems

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.

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.”

Senator Murphy says we can fix this, and he’s probably right. But it’s going to take time, money and a shift in the way Connecticut thinks about getting around.

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 transitNew 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.

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).

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.

2 Comments on "#FedUp with Congestion, Senator Murphy Seeks to Solve Connecticut’s Commuting Problems"

  1. Elaine Lisitano | October 19, 2015 at 4:23 pm |

    We live near the shore and avoid the highway (95) as much as we can. On weekends, both winter and summer, we don’t even venture out to our daughter’s house in Clinton which is supposed to be 20 minutes away, but a trip that can take hours. Traffic accidents/tie ups/ and an abundance of traffic (beach goers, leaf peepers, skiers)put everyone’s lives at risk. The road between Old Lyme and Groton is much too narrow.It needs to be widened, something we probably won’t see in our life time. We also need more police presence who should be more aware of the “strategic” speeders, changing lanes constantly and following too closely. It is almost impossible to believe that state police can’t spot these dangerous drivers. Texting is another problem. If we,as civilians can spot people driving insanely and when passing, notice that they are texting, why can’t the state police see it as well? Perhaps fines should be made very steep with automatic loss of license; maybe that would get help with safety. After all, it is against the law. Senator, you have done some really good things so far; it would be nice for you to do something about the dangerous, overcrowded highways. Thanks.

  2. CT resident | October 23, 2015 at 5:46 pm |

    You have it backwards. It’s not that “Connecticut also has low transit ridership, despite being home to the nation’s single busiest commuter rail line.” It’s because the trains are so crowded that additional commuters refuse to take them. The train line is at capacity. Metro north says that longer trains won’t fit in grand central and we can’t squeeze additional trains on the tracks with the safety rules in place. Even PTC won’t allow additional trains during the extended rush hours. People drive so they can sit instead of having to stand for 90 minutes each way. They drive so they can have a/c in the summer and heat in the winter. They drive even though they know the trip will be long, because it will take longer than scheduled on the train too – on time statistics are horrible even with the 6 minute leeway that the rail road uses to cook their books.
    I’d like to see the senator commute for a while before he offers suggestions. Cone to a commuter council meeting and meet real commuters.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.