The University of Connecticut isn’t new to transportation and parking issues, Samantha Punturiero, an eighth-semester accounting major, explains as she merges into a long line of cars congesting the Exit 68 ramp off Interstate 84. On her way back to UConn, she imagines how much easier her commute would be if she didn’t have to drive.
“I would use a train as much as possible,” she said, getting ready to leave her apartment, which is a 15-minute drive from campus. “It’ll probably be cheaper than driving and super convenient and you don’t really need to worry about snow and parking.”
Punturiero, who is from New Fairfield, moved off campus two years ago because it was cheaper and gave her more freedom, but even with a car and apartment, not much has changed.
In this secluded part of Connecticut, the university not only has traffic and parking issues, Punturiero said, it is also disconnected.
An FRA plan to improve and expand rail from Washington D.C. to Boston proposes to change that.
The plan, called NEC Future, has the potential to become the biggest transportation project in American history within the next 10 to 20 years, NEC Future spokesperson Matthew Lehner said, with price tags of more than $300 billion.
It includes the addition of a railroad that cuts diagonally across Connecticut from New York City to Hartford and through Storrs to Providence and Boston.
NEC Future aims to improve rail service along the Northeast Corridor, a 457-mile long railroad spine that traverses eight states, according to their website. The area it serves is often considered the busiest, most congested and most economically active part of the country, with an expected increase of six million people in the next 30 years.
For UConn students and Mansfield, the possibility of rail connection can open many doors for economic activity and improved transportation, Mansfield Town Council member Toni Moran said, while alleviating parking issues on campus. UConn Parking Services was unavailable for comment.
Despite the benefits, Moran is skeptical because of the price NEC Future estimates their plan will cost, which she thinks is too high.
The possible connection has never happened before and could transform the area, Moran said. Streets are often busy and congested on the UConn campus during the academic year, especially during basketball games in Gampel Pavilion, the university’s home arena.
Connectivity to places outside the UConn campus and Mansfield is also very poor, Charlie Grab, the manager of UConn Transportation, said.
While 1.3 million passengers are shuttled around campus every year on 12 shuttle routes, there is only one shuttle every day that takes students out of town, according to UConn Transportation. That shuttle leaves every morning with a maximum of 14 passengers to Farmington, where the UConn Health Center is located. UConn Transportation currently does not offer any shuttle services to Hartford, but Grab said this is something that is being considered, although there are Peter Pan buses and other alternatives available beyond UConn Transportation.
Before the NEC Future plan, Grab hoped that CTfastrak, a bus system that connects New Britain, Hartford, Bristol, Southington, Cheshire and Waterbury, would expand to connect UConn to Hartford as well. He said this might be a possibility, but the addition of rail from Hartford to UConn would be a much better alternative if it can be achieved.
Grab, Punturiero and Eva Maher, a fourth-semester education major, recommended that if the rail plan moves into the next planning phase, they would like to see a train station in Storrs Center because it would be close enough for people coming to UConn and accessible enough for students who want to leave.
Maher, who plans to become an elementary school teacher in lower income neighborhoods, said rail connection would make reaching her career goals easier because many of the schools where she wants to intern are in Hartford. To get there, she would need a car on campus, but she said having a car would be too expensive and parking would be a constant hassle.
“I think a lot of students would use a railroad and would probably not have cars on campus,” Maher said. “I know in my major, part of the curriculum is to intern in a school as an assistant teacher and a lot of us have to find rides to the schools if we don’t have cars here. A railroad would definitely open doors for us if it was quick and easy to get to places like Hartford.”
While education majors like Maher look to Hartford for internship opportunities, other students look to the city for sports. The XL Center features many of the UConn basketball games, a sport well-known and celebrated at the university, which has won many national championships. Punturiero and Maher are both big fans of UConn’s basketball teams, but they said faster and easier ways of getting to those games are needed.
“To get to the XL Center games, you would have to take a bus or get a ride. If there were a train, people would definitely go to those games more often,” Punturiero said. “Trains are faster and more convenient. I don’t go to many games because I’d have to drive or sign up for one of the buses that take students there.”
SUBOG, the Student Union Board of Governors, at UConn provides round-trip transportation to and from all basketball and hockey games at the XL Center.
Beyond the UConn campus, rail travel would help Mansfield reduce townspeople’s reliance on automobiles, Moran said, which would further reduce traffic and parking issues at UConn.
Eleanor Willis drives to towns adjacent to Mansfield often to visit friends and family. Although retired, she has lived in Mansfield for 25 years and said rail transport to Mansfield would make a difference to many townspeople who regularly commute to Hartford for work, for business or to visit family. She said many of these residents would use the railroad instead of driving their cars, especially since parking in Hartford is often hard to find.
She agrees with Maher and Punturiero that the railroad plan should include a train station at Storrs Center, which is one of the town’s main business zones adjacent to UConn. NEC Future’s current plan shows the railroad passing through the town three miles south of Storrs Center.
Both Grab and Willis said that Storrs Center is most likely to become a hub of economic activity in the next few years and a train station would only enhance that.
When asked about the possibility of rail, Mike Young, the owner of Sweet Emotions Candy Shop in Storrs Center, said he would welcome a train station in Storrs Center because of the traffic it would bring to his small business.
“It would be nice to get people down here without getting a lot of cars down here,” Young said. “There’s a lot of congestion from vehicles, especially with people visiting Storrs Center from surrounding towns. A train line would be a game changer.”
Because Mansfield houses UConn, an economic center for the state, the rail line would likely run through the town if the option to build it were chosen, Lehner said, but the exact location of the rail will not be decided until the project moves forward.
Peter Gioia, vice president of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association and an economist, said that there are many other transportation priorities that go above the NEC Future rail plan, which he thinks won’t happen.
“It would not support the cost involved in developing the rail service,” he said. “Because there aren’t enough people living in rural towns like Mansfield who are going to use it.
The rail plan is currently in its first phase of planning, Lehner said, and it would take many more years before anyone starts thinking about construction or how it will be funded, but public support will heavily influence the outcome. The FRA held public meetings in each of the states through which the proposed rail would be built. Two of those meetings were held in New Haven and Hartford from December of last year to January of this year.
Lehner said NEC Future and the FRA are still sorting through the feedback they received from residents and officials of each state. The feedback, Lehner added, would be factored into a Tier Two Environmental Impact Statement if the project proposal moves forward sometime next year.
Meanwhile, Punturiero drives past Cumberland Farms and CVS on route 195. A large tract of grassland appears on her left as she descends down a hill toward UConn. It’s still too cold to see any cows grazing on the hillside.
This is the scene many incoming students are confronted with when they first come to the university, Punturiero said, recalling her initial reaction to the campus.
“It’s in the middle of nowhere,” she said.
Diler Haji is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email email@example.com.