April 24, 2018

Meriden, Wallingford hope commuter rail launch will bring economic boost

Photo | Contributed
Photo | Contributed
Wallingford's new train station was built to accommodate the new New Haven-to-Springfield commuter rail known as the Hartford line, which state officials say will begin service June 16.

For Wallingford and Meriden officials, the new Hartford line, which the state announced last week would begin service June 16, is more than just a new transportation option.

They also hope the New Haven-to-Springfield train service will make their communities more attractive to investors and potential residents, sparking a surge of economic growth, especially in their downtowns.

In Meriden, the jury is already in. The mere prospect of the line gave the Silver City a shot of economic adrenaline, Economic Development Director Juliet Burdelski said this week. Without a single train having run, four development firms have approached the city about building 600 to 1,000 new housing units and 35,000 square feet of retail space within a half mile of the line's new downtown train station, she said.

"They've strongly suggested that one of the reasons they looked at Meriden initially is because of the planned train service," Burdelski said.

Wallingford Economic Development Specialist Tim Ryan said that his town is also hopeful that the line will bring significant economic benefit. The train will make the community's downtown and restaurants more accessible, while also potentially attracting new residents who want to live in town and commute to their jobs in New Haven, Hartford and elsewhere, he said.

The line will also help existing businesses by expanding their potential labor pools, Ryan said. Already, a local manufacturer has talked to the town about running a shuttle bus to pick up and drop off employees for an expanded third shift, he said.

"We do expect some additional activity," Ryan said. "It is not an economic development silver bullet. But it is a practical tool for development in that transportation is improved, and people can move more easily and simply."

Garrett Sheehan, president of the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce, concurred that the new line has the potential to stimulate economic growth region-wide, adding it will bring the New Haven and Hartford regions closer. To be truly effective, he added, the state also must maintain its commitments to rail service on Shoreline East to New London and south into New York City.

"I think it's going to create some interesting connections," Sheehan said of the new line. "I think the more connections that greater New Haven and greater Hartford have, the better we will be as a state."

More than a decade in the making, the line has cost $642 million so far for new stations, track upgrades and equipment, according to the state Department of Transportation. In addition to Meriden and Wallingford, Berlin also received a new station. Additional new stations are planned for North Haven, Newington, West Hartford and Enfield, DOT has said.

Service will begin with 17 trains a day between New Haven and Hartford and 12 a day between the capital city and Springfield, DOT said. Fares will be modest – $8 one-way between New Haven and Hartford. Trains will run as fast as 110 miles per hour; it will take just 81 minutes to get from New Haven to Springfield, DOT said.

DOT Commissioner James P. Redeker likewise views the line as a potential boon to the region's economy.

"This expanded service will transform travel options in the corridor between New Haven and Springfield, Massachusetts, and it will be a catalyst for economic development, and business and recreational travel," Redeker said. "Getting new service on this line has been a monumental undertaking that has taken years of intense coordination to ensure the successful opening of service."

Burdelski, meanwhile, is already looking toward phase two. The line, she said, will put Meriden within a 40-minute commute of 140,000 jobs. That is a powerful marketing tool for the city, as it seeks to attract residents and investment, she said. She points to the success of other cities that have introduced rail service, including Dallas and Salt Lake City.

"Our hope with the next wave is to have major employers and institutions looking at Meriden as the place to come because we have the best workers and the best interconnectivity," she said.

Like Sheehan, Burdelski said the line has the potential to bring the state's often fractious and independent-minded towns and cities closer together. She said she is finding her counterparts in communities along the train line eager to collaborate.

"I think there really is a lot of excitement not just in our community, but at the prospect of the expansion," she said. "There's a willingness to cooperate and learn from each other."

Christopher Hoffman can be reached at news@newhavenbiz.com

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