Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) at a Political Crossroads
Connecticut may be located in southern New England in the US, but it’s also part of the New York City tri-state area, where urban redevelopment and suburban growth are significant concerns. The population demands, especially in the last couple of years with many New Yorkers relocating to the state because of COVID-19, has led local and state officials to consider several transit-oriented development proposals (TOD).
By building new and redeveloping existing residential and commercial projects near public transportation hubs, TOD projects can help mitigate overdevelopment and traffic congestion. But officials and residents who favor TOD face various barriers to having TOD proposals come to fruition partly because of Connecticut’s local political power (or home rule) structure and the lack of regional efforts to address overdevelopment.
Smart growth strategies, like transit-oriented development, foster planned communities and address sustainable approaches to redeveloping older cities and new development in many suburbs and outer suburbs, or exurbs. These living, working, and commuting options allow mobility for residents across various communities. Most importantly, they do not need to rely on constant use of personal automobiles as residents can often bicycle, walk, or take public transportation. Ultimately, TOD proposals allow officials and developers to build or revitalize around train stations, bus stations, and ferry terminals.
Connecticut will receive significant federal transportation funds ($5.4 billion) from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that was passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden in November 2021. Part of the appropriations will help finance new development around existing and new commuter train stations, especially along the new Hartford Line from Massachusetts to New Haven, which connects Metro-North commuter trains to New York City and Amtrak’s northeast regional lines.
With additional state bonds, Connecticut is planning to add a new Enfield station and Windsor Locks station to the Hartford Line, which is near Bradley International Airport. Eventually, a direct bus route will serve between the train station and airport. Affluent West Hartford was also considered, and may be in future plans for a new train station in its Parkville commercial area and Elmwood neighborhood. Developers are especially interested in building new apartments near a proposed station in this upscale Hartford suburb.
Community leaders and organizations as well as state and local officials are aiming to make new train stations in TOD hubs with federal funds and state bonds. These investments can help address suburban sprawl and car congestion in the future. If state and local stakeholders are successful, their initiatives could also serve as a case study in urban renewal and as an example of shared governmental financing, public transit, and green development policymaking. But many of these development concepts are new approaches for many residents, compared to what other states and localities have already accomplished with smart growth planning.
New Jersey and Maryland as TOD Models
Nearby states like New Jersey and Maryland have strategized around their existing transit hubs. Their state governments emphasized future growth proposals that would revitalize specific areas near public transportation. Officials also identified where new growth would develop near current or future transit communities. Both New Jersey and Maryland experienced significant sprawl or overdevelopment concerns, especially in their suburban and exurban municipalities. Traffic, sprawl, and mobility became chief concerns for many residents and officials. In the 1990s, these states proposed smart growth and sustainable strategies to address future growth. In addition to TOD projects, they also targeted where new and revitalized growth could be centered across a number of urban and suburban counties. Officials also advanced various moratoriums to prevent overdevelopment in protected areas.
Most importantly, Maryland and New Jersey officials at all levels of government incentivized policies and funding towards specific projects that were sustainable. Grants, loans, and zoning variances attracted various developers and investors to develop and revitalize in many communities. In Newark, New Jersey, officials rebuilt parts of their downtown with workforce housing for local educators through a newly developed “Teachers’ Village” community near the city’s major bus exchange and nearby main Newark Pennsylvania Train Station.
Then-Mayor (and current US Senator) Cory Booker emphasized these kinds of themed urban village concepts, which I researched and wrote about when I lived in New Jersey’s largest city. Future Newark plans include new TOD development around the northern edge of downtown, adjacent to New Jersey Transit’s Broad Street Station. These Newark examples point to TOD projects and revitalizing an urban downtown.
Smaller New Jersey cities, like Rahway, already had a bustling New Jersey Transit train station centered in its downtown. But some fifteen projects have been constructed or renovated because it was designated early-on as a New Jersey Transit Village. More and new development has taken place around the station, especially in the last decade as a result of local, county and state grants, loans, and zoning changes.
Maryland’s largest cities, like Baltimore, classified areas as TOD projects especially near area light rail train stations. Suburban and exurban communities between Baltimore and Washington, DC were also identified for Priority Funding Areas (PFAs) for directing aid to specific areas. Plus, the state’s University of Maryland houses a sustainable think tank, the National Center for Smart Growth, that drafts proposals and various studies on economic development approaches.
Unlike Maryland and New Jersey, Connecticut remains at a development crossroads. For a state that does not offer an accredited graduate planning program, urban and suburban development approaches are often lacking. Connecticut is also void of county power and regionalization, whereas New Jersey and Maryland were able to institute sustainable development approaches decades ago through shared governance. When Connecticut did away with county government in the 1960s, local governments’ home rule or local authority became more powerful. This included municipal decision-making on planning and zoning of local projects, even though county power was already limited. Connecticut’s municipalities vary on development proposals, but many towns maintain rigid, single-use zoning for specific single-family housing residential development. Often, lot sizes may be acres per house, unlike urban or more traditional suburban house tracts that allow for multiple-family housing units or commercial zoning use.
Recently, Connecticut officials have been debating housing proposals, zoning approaches, and TOD models. Many opponents or NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) advocates and progressive housing supporters have politicized various state policy proposals addressing housing and TOD proposals. HB 5429 in the Connecticut General Assembly, for example, would allow the state to have development as-of-right housing near public transportation hubs. There would also be a specific percentage (at least 10%) of affordable housing in new TOD developments. There has been supportive lobbying for the bill by organizations and leaders like Partnership for Strong Communities’ Kiley Gosselin and DesegregateCT’s founder and Cornell University Professor Sara Bronin.
Ultimately, Connecticut officials must address home rule authority and shared governance approaches—along with sustainable development proposals.
But the bipartisan HB 5429 proposal has some state lawmakers against the bill because it would allow developers not to go before a public hearing or a town zoning board for building approvals. Republican State Representative Kimberly Fiorello has argued that TOD housing is not a right because it is subject to market demands. Some Democratic lawmakers, including State Representative Jonathan Steinberg, have voiced their concerns against the proposal because it limits home rule decision-making about developments near Metro-North train stations. Some counter that opponents of the bill are against affordable housing options and public transit modalities, particularly in wealthier Fairfield County shoreline towns. No surprise then, committee hearings and editorials for the bill have been dramatic—both for and against the legislative proposal.
Unfortunately, what has gotten lost among the debates about HB 5429 and other TOD proposals is that Connecticut retains a strongly local-centered government process. Home rule by local officials is powerful and state government is limited, even when it comes to TOD strategies. Besides, Connecticut has largely developed itself based on local zoning laws that limit various development approaches. Even the state’s transportation financing has come under fire by public transit and urbanist advocates.
Ultimately, Connecticut officials must address home rule authority and shared governance approaches—along with sustainable development proposals. Federal funds can be a start to smart growth and TOD proposals, but Connecticut’s state and local officials will also have to consider how other states have been successful with such projects and evaluate home rule best practices for future sustainable development.
*Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is the School of Graduate and Professional Studies Associate Dean and teaches political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University. He served on New Haven’s City Plan Commission, and his state and local government research centers on economic development in the New York City tri-state area.