A long-needed second parking garage may open at Union Station in 2017. Maybe. But who knows?
That not-so-definitive word came Tuesday from the state’s transportation chief—the latest in two decades of maybes and vague promises about a project that state and officials agree needs to happen in order to enable more people to travel by train rather drive on the highway.
Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker offered that assessment in a conversation sandwiched between two train-related press conferences at Union Station, neither of them touching on the garage.
The state has been promising to build a second garage at the train station since the 1990s, to encourage more commuters to avoid further clogging highways and polluting the air. Union Station’s existing 1,140-car garage often fills up; drivers need to park either at a private lot at the old Coliseum site and walk over; or at the Temple Street Garage and catch a separate shuttle to the train station. The Coliseum site is on track for a new development project, meaning the parking crunch will worsen as the surface lots disappears.
The quest to build the garage succumbed to arguments between the DeStefano and Rowland administrations, then delays and the departure of two governors and numerous state transit chiefs. Then Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced last July that he was 60 days away from issuing a request for proposals to get the garage project started. (Read about that here. Read more about the saga of the planned parking garage here, here and here.)
On Tuesday Redeker said his department has not issued any RFPs. It has none scheduled. His staff is “preparing some concept plans about the type of facility that we might like.” He anticipates “working through” those initial ideas in “a very engaged stakeholder process within the city of New Haven, with residents, with businesses, with the schools and the hospitals, to get everybody’s opinions.”
After that process, for which he did not have a timetable, the state will decide whether to build the garage itself or enlist a private builder, according to Redeker. Once the state awards a contract with a builder—another time-consuming process—it usually takes another two to three years to complete the job, he said. He noted that the his department selected a developer last July to build a new garage at the Stamford train station; the two sides have yet to sign a final contract. Then Redeker expects it would take another three years to complete the job, including demolition.
“Do you think it’s possible that in five years there will be a [new] garage” in New Haven? Redeker was asked.
“Oh, sure,” he responded.
Redeker did not offer an estimate of the new garage’s cost, either.
Malloy, who’s running for reelection, Tuesday called it “an open question” when the garage will be built. He said he’s “very committed to getting [it] done.” (Click on the video at the top of this story to watch him address the matter.)
“There’s a new mayor in New Haven,” Malloy said, referring to Toni Harp, with whom he has a close working relationship. “We’re having frank and positive discussions on how to manage this facility and how to move it along, and how to meet additional parking needs. ...
“There are differences of opinion, but they’re narrowing rapidly. Let me say that we’re making more progress in a relatively short period of time than was probably made in 15 years.”
The second garage, originally envisioned to fill the surface lot at the station’s southern end, is now expected to be built (if it’s ever built) on the north side, on a surface lot next to the existing garage, based on a broader vision of the train station’s future unveiled last December by state and city development officials. The plan called for the new garage (at far left in drawing) to have 645 spaces, replacing 186 surface spots. Officials agree the garage should include storefronts, and maybe a second related building with apartments, as a form of “transit-oriented development” to tie into the emerging Hill-Downtown district.
Meanwhile, back in reality, the state and city have taken some steps in recent years to ease the Union Station parking crunch. The state added surface parking at the West Haven station. New Haven’s parking authority, which manages the station and the existing garage, added valet service. So even if the garage is full, you can pay $20 for the day, and a parking attendant will find space in another city lot to stash your car.
The station lot doesn’t usually fill up now until between 9:30 and 10:30 a.m. on busiest days, according to acting authority chief David Panagore. He said that only twice in the past four months has the garage been full by 9 a.m.
City economic development chief Matthew Nemerson Tuesday said he can picture the new garage getting built quickly. He said the loss of the Coliseum site lot increases the urgency; the city is asking the state for permission to fast-track hiring a developer.
“I’d like to see if there’s some miracle way we can build it in the next 18 months,” Nemerson said. “Developers have told me they can put it up in a year and a half start to finish. The Stamford project is much more complicated. This is much simpler,” partly because it doesn’t involve demolition.
Malloy (pictured with Redeker) came to Union Station at noon Tuesday not to discuss the garage, but to announce the completion of a power upgrade on the New Haven Metro-North commuter line. The state has replaced 80 percent of the overhead power lines between Southport and Bridgeport. That work is part of a $386.5 million repair project scheduled to be completed in 2017, when a “state-of-the-art constant tension system” will fully replace a circa-1907 “fixed-termination catenary system” of wires that “can sag or contract due to changes in temperature, resulting in wire damage.” That work will enable Metro-North to run peak-hour trains on four tracks in a problematic seven-mile stretch in Fairfield County—enabling the line in general to run more smoothly.
After a series of accidents and breakdowns over the past year, Malloy has been pushing Metro-North for improvements. “For too long, we have deferred our problems with temporary fixes to a later date” in Connecticut, he said. “But no longer.” He promised that when work is completed, commuters will be able to expect “a safe and reliable commute” on the New Haven line.
Three Connecticut U.S. representatives—New Haven’s Rosa DeLauro, Elizabeth Esty, and Jim Himes—made a similar pitch when they appeared with Redeker at a press conference earlier Tuesday. They announced they have introduced a bill, called the Rail Safety Enforcement Act. It would require rail carriers to develop “fatigue risk plans,” give employees “predictable and defined work and rest schedules,” and have automatic devices to “sound an alarm when a train engineer seems idle while the train is in motion.” The Congress members noted that five people have died and 129 have been injured on Metro-North trains over the past year.
“We need reliability. We need safety. We can and must have both,” said Esty. She recounted a recent Amtrak ride back from D.C. in which she and other riders spent an hour and half stuck on the tracks in Delaware because of a power outage along the route.