Leonard Felson
Jun 19, 2018

Make Hartford Cool, Connected


Edited: Sep 10, 2018

My wife and I flew into Denver last month to visit our 27-year-old son. Rather than rent a car, we walked out of the terminal and boarded the city's new light rail link to downtown.

Thirty-seven minutes later, we stepped into bustling Union Station, a historic Beaux-Arts building that's become a transportation and social hub.


Denver's Union Station, above, is connected to the city's airport by light rail making life easier and more interesting for travelers. 

(Evan Semon)

As my wife checked into the Crawford Hotel one floor above, I stood amazed at the pulse of activity: millennials, mostly, filling up bars and farm-to-table restaurants in the train station. An independent bookshop, a Denver ice cream shop and a spot that brews locally roasted coffee beckoned. I was in urban heaven.

I love smart innovative cities, ones with easy-to-use subway and light rail systems that accentuate connectivity and cultivate scenes like Denver's.

Every time I visit a cool city, I flash back to Hartford and ask why not here? Why can't this capital region, where I've lived for more than 30 years, pull off a project like Denver's airport-to-downtown rail link? Why can't our Union Station be as vibrant a town square?

Neither question is that farfetched, notwithstanding obvious regional differences. Metro Denver is booming with more than 3 million people. Metro Hartford, a third the size, has a population in decline and a stagnant economy.

Yet both factors could be turned around when a new commuter rail service called the Hartford Line launches 17 daily round trips between Hartford and New Haven next year. A dozen of those trains will continue to Springfield, restoring almost-hourly train service through the I-91 corridor, a development not seen since post-World War II when passenger rail began its decline and the car's domination took over.

Eventually, 25 trains a day will run along the entire route, boosting ridership from 300,000 commuters to a projected 1 million-plus, according to state officials.

One of six new stations will be in Windsor Locks, home to Bradley International Airport, a terminal where passenger traffic has grown yearly since 2013. New, nonstop service to Europe and the West Coast no doubt is helping.

The Windsor Locks train stop is in the town's center, three miles from the airport and inconvenient for out-of-towners flying in and out of Bradley. Creating a rail link from Bradley to either downtown Hartford or the Windsor Locks station would be a game-changer. I thought about what a difference it would make as I rode Denver's light rail back to the Denver International Airport for my flight home.

An easy-to-manage rail link could make Bradley a more competitive airport and help rescue Greater Hartford from its economic backwater status, leveraging its strategic location that has more than 23.5 million people living within a two-hour drive, 13 percent of the U.S. economy.

Establishing virtually anytime connections to Metro-North Railroad's New Haven Line and New York City would transform the region's image. Our real estate, commercial and residential, would suddenly be attractive to those being priced out of New York. And Hartford's Union Station might bustle again with an array of locally sourced restaurants, craft breweries, a bakery and good coffee. In short, as the place to meet.

A big advocate of such a rail link from the airport is Kevin Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority, which manages Bradley. He oversaw a rail connection in 2010 at T.F. Green Airport outside Providence, giving airline passengers there the ability to seamlessly catch trains to Providence and Boston.

What if we did something similar here?

One hurdle is passenger volume. It's probably too low to justify the preliminary $50 million cost for a rail line that would carry a fraction of the ridership of CTfastrak, the state's first bus rapid transit, which carried a weekday average of almost 20,000 riders for the fourth quarter of 2016.

Other urgent transit projects, including the replacement of the aging I-84 elevated highway through Hartford, estimated at $4.5 billion, are competing for limited state and federal transportation funds.

Fortunately, other connections, if less flashy, are possible and far less costly. Shuttle buses, equipped for air-travelers' baggage, already are planned to meet every train at the new Windsor Locks station, delivering passengers to the airport within five minutes. The Bradley Flyer, a CT Transit semi-express bus to the airport, popular with downtown residents, could increase its frequency from hourly to one every 15 to 20 minutes. And CTfastrak, which runs between New Britain and downtown Hartford, could be extended to the airport, using HOV lanes along I-91, leaving every 10 minutes.

Every time I drive into downtown Hartford along Farmington Avenue, I scan the skyline from Asylum Hill, peering down at Union Station, and see the potential for an urban village. Seamless connections from here to the rest of the world would be one step closer to realizing that possibility.

Leonard Felson lives in West Hartford, where another new train station is planned.

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Leonard Felson