With the approaching launch in May 2018 of a new commuter rail line between New Haven and Springfield, Massachusetts, transit-oriented development initiatives are increasing in municipalities along Connecticut I-91 corridor.
Generally, transit-oriented development, or TOD, occurs within ¼ to ½ mile, or a five to 10 minute walk from a transit station, and is characterized by a mix of uses and a moderate to high density residential component. TOD districts are intended to be walkable communities, usually characterized by high-quality designs and landscape features. TOD zoning regulations set standards to encourage pedestrian orientation and connectivity, and to foster access to a variety of transportation options. They also provide reduced parking requirements on the theory that access to other forms of transportation will reduce the need for personal vehicles.
Studies tout the many benefits of TODs to a municipality, including reduced traffic congestion, more housing diversity and local economic investment – but most critical to the creation and success of a TOD district is a central transit center.
CTrail Hartford Line Scheduled to Launch May 2018
A new commuter rail line between New Haven and Springfield, Mass. is scheduled to launch service in May 2018. The new service, called the “CTrail Hartford Line,” will nearly triple the level of rail service between New Haven and Springfield: 17 roundtrip trains will operate between New Haven and Hartford each day, with 12 of those trains continuing to Springfield. Travelers at New Haven, Wallingford, Meriden, Berlin, Hartford and Windsor will be able to board trains approximately every 45 minutes during the peak morning and evening rush hour and every 90 minutes during the rest of day. The CTrail Hartford Line rail service will operate at speeds up to 110 mph, cutting travel time between Springfield and New Haven to as little as 81 minutes. The CTrail Hartford Line will also connect with existing Metro-North commuter rail and Amtrak Acela high-speed rail services at various points.
In conjunction with the launch of this new service, new train stations are scheduled to open by May 2018 in Meriden, Wallingford, and Berlin, along with completion of upgrades to New Haven’s State Street station. Design and environmental permitting efforts have begun for new stations in North Haven, Newington, West Hartford, Windsor, Windsor Locks and Enfield. Those efforts are currently scheduled for completion by 2020, along with improvements to tracks between Windsor and Springfield.
State Encouraging Investment in TODs
Whether a new train station will serve as an economic catalyst for a municipality will depend upon the local zoning regulations. A 2014 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded that obstructive and inefficient local land use policies can be a significant barrier to transit-oriented development.
The State of Connecticut has been offering various grants and loan options to encourage TOD growth in communities throughout the State – particularly in those towns about to access the state’s significant investment in the new CTrail Hartford Line. Over the past three years, the state has awarded more than $12 million in grants to municipalities across the state to encourage the growth of TOD projects, including several towns along the CTrail Hartford Line. For example, Connecticut’s Office of Policy and Management gave 11 towns and cities grants “to generate a pool of prospective planning projects that best support transit oriented development . . . or are directly supportive of such efforts.” Those 11 towns received between $75,000 to $250,000 in grant funding.
Additionally, the State of Connecticut Department of Economic & Community Development (DECD) partnered with the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority (CHFA) and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation to establish a $15 million loan fund for site acquisition and predevelopment to support TOD along all bus rapid transit and commuter rail corridors statewide. To be eligible, a project must include a residential component (a minimum percentage of which is affordable housing) and keep the following TOD goals: create residential and mixed use development near transit, including affordable housing options; expand neighborhood retail, commercial or community services; revitalize vacant, blighted or underutilized property; leverage significant private investment; and create construction and permanent jobs. TOD loans for site acquisition and predevelopment are available at a 5-percent interest rate for up to 36 months. The maximum loan size is $3 million.
New TOD Initiatives in Towns to be Serviced by CTrail Hartford Line
TOD initiatives are escalating in those municipalities affected by the launch of the CTrail Hartford Line. The Town of Wallingford’s updated Plan of Conservation and Development specifically references the new CTrail Hartford Line and train station and details that “taking advantage of this new service is a major priority of this Plan.” The Wallingford Planning & Zoning Commission also approved a companion Transit Oriented Development Plan, which is specifically incorporated into the updated POCD. Specific recommendations include, but are not limited to, providing and supporting transit-oriented housing options around the train station, improving pedestrian environment in the station area, extending streetscape improvements, and encouraging moderate- to high-density housing along area streets and relocation and development of pedestrian-oriented retail.
The most striking TOD activity is in City of Meriden, whose new rail station has not only prompted new TOD zoning regulations but several other TOD projects. Projects include the construction of three mixed-use developments that have a total of 295 new residential units and 31,000 square feet of commercial space, a 273-space parking garage, and a 14-acre town green. According to a press release issued by Governor Malloy, ongoing public and private investment in Meriden’s TOD projects exceeds $150 million, and the “newly-opened 24 Colony Street [apartment complex] is the first new construction in downtown Meriden in 30 years and is just steps from the new Hartford Line train station.”
Favorable TOD zoning regulations exist even in towns with new stations only in the design phase. For example, the Zoning Regulations for the Town of Windsor provide Design District standards “to promote transit-oriented development in close proximity to the railroad station.” In that area, the Planning and Zoning Commission may increase residential density from 20 to 30 dwelling units per acre and/or increase the maximum building height from three to four stories (45 to 60 feet, subject to certain conditions), reduce on-site parking standards “to promote walking in Windsor Center and the use of readily available mass transit in the area of east of the Amtrak railroad line,” and establish provisions to ensure safe travel of pedestrians in the vicinity of the train tracks.
While Windsor is not expected to see the designs for a redeveloped station until 2020, new TOD-inspired housing is already making news. Notably, the Hartford Courant reported the grand opening of “130 units of transit-oriented housing marketed to millennials,” which they report to be already 90-percent leased.
This activity at both the local and state level indicates that a significant portion of the state, traditionally known for suburban sprawl and dependence upon cars for all forms of travel, is now becoming fruitful ground for TOD projects.
Meaghan M. Miles is an attorney with Carmody Torrance Sandak & Hennessey LLP