The winter weather has wrecked havoc on East Hampton’s commuters over the past several weeks, turning journeys usually measured in minutes into hours-long treks on overcrowded highways. Those hoping for warmer weather to cure their ills have the coming rehabilitation work on the Arrigoni Bridge, rising gas prices and the normal summer driving season to look forward to.
Amid these road hazards, people can’t be faulted for considering alternatives to get them where they want to go. Given its proud history in the area and its apparent success in other places, rail is one option that always seems to score a great deal of attention.
President Barack Obama featured one type of rail service, high-speed intercity, in his State of the Union address on Jan. 25, 2011, saying that, “This could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying - without the pat-down.” High-speed rail already benefitted immensely as part of the President’s 2009 Stimulus package that shepherded $8 billion to such projects around the country.
The Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives seemed to imperil this portion of the Obama vision, given the heavy and ongoing commitment of tax dollars required to make rail a reality. But the Chairman of the key subcommittee on railroads, U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster from Pennsylvania, authored an opinion-editorial piece for The Hartford Courant last weekend, which singled out the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line as a key route for investment.
These developments would seem most fortuitous for those dreaming of bringing rail transportation to East Hampton and Portland. A successful New Haven-Hartford-Springfield route would almost surely serve as an impetus to couple commuter rail with it.
A closer look at current commuting trends complicates the issue. According to the Connecticut Economic Resource Center (CERC), about half of all commuters from East Hampton or Portland are travelling to either Hartford or Middletown. Leaving aside debates about how many workers from East Hampton would really be willing to drive or walk to a train station, park, get on the train, ride it to Middletown, and then walk or take the bus to their workplace, it remains true that a commuter rail system between those points would not even be a practical option for the majority of commuters.
Given the decentralized geographic organization of our work, it seems farfetched that rail might have a future in the area. It is more likely that it would serve as a costly boondoggle instead of a solution to the problem.
Commuters hoping for some relief from the gridlock should not lose heart though, because the data also suggests a better alternative. Of the people that commute to East Hampton, 69 percent of them live in East Hampton and 46 percent of people commuting to work in Portland live in Portland. Growing the local economy with jobs and economic activity will be far better at solving our transportation problems than any other project we could conceive.