In this episode of Train Time, we spoke to Mayor Luke Bronin of Hartford, Connecticut, who has become a leader in regional efforts to promote passenger rail for economic development, social and environmental justice, and climate stewardship. Bronin is also the co-chair of the bold proposal that was first called Rebooting New England and is now christened North Atlantic Rail. We talk about his vision for his city and state, and how the infrastructure projects in the North Atlantic Rail initiative and also the Hartford400 plan will revitalize an entire region, and serve as a model for parts of the United States that don’t yet have a robust public transit system. We also discuss the challenge of deciding where to spend money, given the pressing need for both maintenance and new construction, and his vision for unlocking economic growth and expanding economic opportunity in cities that have fallen behind.

See below for an edited transcript of the interview.

Luke Bronin became mayor of Hartford in 2016 and led the city through the biggest fiscal crisis in the city’s history, working to put Hartford on a path to fiscal stability. In addition to promoting economic development and investment, his administration has focused on building opportunity for Hartford residents. He has also worked to position Hartford as a center of innovation and establish Hartford a leader in environmental stewardship. Prior to becoming mayor, Bronin was general counsel to then-Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy and also served in the Obama administration and as an officer in the US Navy Reserve. He earned his BA and JD from Yale University and his MA from Oxford University, where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar.


Note: This transcript was created using AI and is imperfect. For purposes of quotation, please check the actual recording! It is time-stamped , which is useful as a guide to finding a point in the recording, but the time-stamps are not a perfect match to the podcast because we have added an introduction and done some editing.

Mon, 4/26/21 3:11PM • 24:46

Karen Christensen, Luke Bronin

Karen Christensen 01:26
Mayor Bronin. Luke Bronin. How wonderful to have you with us on Train Time today.

Luke Bronin 01:31
Thanks so much for having me, Karen, great to be with you.

Karen Christensen 01:33
Well, you know, I follow you on Twitter. And I see that you have many other things on your mind, and on your plate, but you seem to have made passenger rail transportation infrastructure, a significant part of your vision for Hartford.

Luke Bronin 01:56
It is a huge part of my vision for Hartford. And I think it should be a huge part of our vision for New England and the North Atlantic region as a whole for so many reasons. I mean, it hits so many things that should be priorities right now, economic growth and economic opportunity, climate stewardship and climate action, housing opportunity. There’s just so many things that a modernized rail system would do for our country, but specifically given the opportunity that we have right now for New England in this North Atlantic region.

Karen Christensen 02:32
So let’s look at your particular part of the North Atlantic region. For listeners who are elsewhere in the country, give them a sense of where Hartford is, why it matters how it is, it has a very central position. And then I’d love to hear the story of how you got involved in in the effort with passenger rail.

Luke Bronin 03:02
Sure. Well, Hartford, Connecticut capital city sits pretty much smack in the center of Connecticut. And that also places it pretty much smack in the center of New York and Boston. And yet, it is extraordinary that you cannot take a train from Hartford, Connecticut to Boston directly, you’d have to go down to the shoreline down New Haven and then up, you know, you could drive to Boston and about an hour and a half, it would take you three or four hours to get there by train, which is which is crazy. And similarly, you cannot get by train from Hartford to Providence, Rhode Island. Even though as the crow flies, we’re not too far away. And as you know, Karen, this isn’t true just of Hartford, there are literally dozens of mid-sized cities in New England, that were once powerhouses of manufacturing. in Hartford, we were also the insurance capital of the world. But that saw economic decline in the mid-20th century, and have not seen the economic opportunity and growth that they should see, should have seen over the last couple of decades, in part because of the lack of connectivity, and the atrocious state of our infrastructure, the rising congestion, just the difficulty of moving between cities that should be part of one economically integrated region.

Karen Christensen 04:30
And we are a relatively small region, we do have trains and public transport. But as you say, they’re far from where they should be to really make us effective. Now you were thinking about this long before the pandemic.

Luke Bronin 04:47
Absolutely, you know, this is it’s something that I think is just glaringly obvious. If you spend time in New England, or downstate New York is just how far behind we are when it comes to modern transportation infrastructure, you know, just how much at the mercy of traffic or traffic jams you are if you’re trying to move around the region. And again, how economically isolated communities that should be deeply tied in to two of the biggest metro areas in the country, New York and Boston are because of that failing infrastructure. So it’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a long, long time. Here in Hartford, we’re looking toward what will be our 400th anniversary as a city in in 2035. And as part of that work of envisioning where we want to be as a city, there’s lots of things we’re working on, including a variety of infrastructure things you know, we’re one of those cities where you have the classic planning sin of cutting off a city from its river with a highway and then cutting the city off, bisecting it with another highway. So we’d love to see that address too. But, but we need to begin moving beyond this car centric vision of our infrastructure and, and build what most of the world has already begun to build on as far along in building thing, which is high performance, high speed rail that is more convenient, and also a whole lot greener than what we’ve got.

Karen Christensen 06:15
Yeah. And then the opportunity, of course, right now is really tremendous. I had, certainly when the pandemic, when we first heard about COVID-19, I had no idea that this would help us to think afresh about what was coming next. And to build this, this whole idea of building back better, but it has proved an opportunity. But one of the things I’m not from New England and I came here from London, where of course, I’ve been used to trade. One of the things I remember hearing about Connecticut, quite often is that the traffic there is terrible. Do you think it has worse traffic than other places?

Luke Bronin 06:58
Look, I’ve got plenty of places in America that have terrible traffic. But the parts of i 95, that go between New Haven and New York City are awful. And you don’t know, if you’ve got to get to a meeting at nine o’clock in the morning, you’ve got to leave at six o’clock in the morning, even it should only be an hour drive, because you don’t know what you’re going to hit. And from my experience, the same is true in the Boston area. So I think the traffic is pretty bad. I think the infrastructure is out of date. But you know, the other pieces that we it’s not just that we haven’t built the modern rail infrastructure. We surrendered. The old real rail infrastructure that we had a train service today is actually worse and slower than it was 50 years ago. And you know, that’s that is stunning, and really makes us an outlier in the world. So you know, it’s all of those things together. And I do think there’s a there’s a significant opportunity, right at this moment.

Karen Christensen 07:58
I think that it must be that Connecticut is so central, and it because it is between New York and Boston, that’s why would hear about the traffic, because trying to move through Connecticut is important. It’s it is a, you know, a place that that connects a lot of other places. It’s a hub. And Hartford, of course, is the center of that. So what do you see? What is your vision for the transportation of the future?

Luke Bronin 08:31
Well, it’s twofold when you talk about rail. It’s number one, it’s building a genuine net rail network that connects communities. It’s not just about the biggest cities, it’s about a real network that allows you to move where you want to go and where you need to go by rail. And there’s so many advantages to that. Obviously, there’s huge climate advantages to it, there’s convenience advantages to it, you can work on trains, I think that generationally, there’s more and more eagerness for mass transit options like that. So you need that full network. But you also need to move into the 21st century when it comes to high speed and high performance.

So the North Atlantic Rail vision is built around two ideas, one, connecting New York City and Boston with a 100 minute high speed service. And then making sure that all of the midsize cities around that region are tied into that network, it’s those two things together. Now there are a bunch of it does, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it happens sequentially, where you build the high speed first, and then you do the connectivity. There’s a lot of work that can be done right now to improve connectivity. You know, the North Atlantic rail vision starts with some early action projects, including the completion of East West rail in Massachusetts, you know, connecting Springfield to Boston, which is there again, it’s stunning that you cannot currently travel by commuter train from Springfield to Boston, strengthening the service and frequency on the Hartford line, which goes between Springfield, Mass and New Haven, Connecticut, and then improvements on that New Haven line, so that you can begin moving much faster, much more reliably between New Haven area in New York, that’s a perfect example of a line where the service is a whole lot slower now than it was half a century ago. That’s shocking. It’s stunning. And it’s embarrassing. It should be certainly a regional investment bears when it should be a national embarrassment.

Karen Christensen 10:33
Yes, indeed. One of the very interesting things about the North Atlantic rail project is it really does connect a lot of states. But I was last week on a bunch of calls. For the rail passengers Association. We were meeting with offices of legislators in Washington to talk about the infrastructure bill. And one of the things that I kept bringing up because it’s something that’s a challenge with whose atomic line is interstate cooperation, and for us and Connecticut, of course, To do almost any rail project there, you want to connect to other states. Have you have you thought about how we could improve that interstate cooperation, which does seem to be a challenge for many projects?

Luke Bronin 11:25
Yeah, you know, you’re absolutely right here. And it’s a really important part of it. And so one of the other things that we are proposing as we lobby for this, this rail network is the creation of North Atlantic rail entity that is essentially a planning and construction entity to oversee the design and the build out of this system, you’re going to have lots of different trains and lots of different services running on these rails. But I think for exactly the reason you state, we need to have an entity that is a multi-state entity that is responsible for the planning instruction, that’s how this stuff can get done in a much more efficient and much more effective way.

Karen Christensen 12:06
Yeah, because otherwise, we just have all these different we’re nobody’s like in charge. Right? And, and it’s one of the, I guess, weaknesses of our federal system is this federal system has strengths, but its infrastructure is something that we you know, it connects all of us in terms of the most important things now, as we enter the next, you know, this sort of immediate future, what would you say is most important for us a city like Hartford or other smaller cities?

Luke Bronin 12:42
Well, I think the most important thing right now is to make sure that we seize this moment of opportunity with the American jobs, American jobs plan, you know, President Biden has put forward a very large, ambitious infrastructure plan. And I know that he is passionate about rail service and about high speed rail. But I do think that in this one area, it’s actually too modest, a lot of the funding that’s in that bill right now, would be eaten up by just making state of good repair repairs, just trying to keep the current infrastructure from deteriorating further. And that’s obviously vitally important, that needs to happen. But I think this is a moment when we should be doing more than just, you know, preventing further deterioration. This is a moment when we should be positioning America and positioning this region to be truly competitive in the 21st century. And as we talk about climate action, and really rising to the, to the challenge that we face of tackling climate change with the urgency that we should have brought to it 3040 years ago, yeah, this has to be a part of it. And we’re going to have to be bigger and bolder. And I think that, you know, it’s hard to deny that as a country, we’ve, we’ve gotten out of the habit of doing big, bold things. This is the country that built the transcontinental railroad and built the interstate highway system. High speed, high performance rail, is the equivalent for the 21st century, it generates enormous economic growth. And that’s why you’re seeing dozens of countries around the world. Do it. So I think, you know, I know this is a long answer your question, but the most important thing right now is seizing this opportunity that’s in front of us right now, is looking at the American jobs plan and saying, we have to do all those things that are in there. But let’s do a little bit more. So we’re not just maintaining what we’ve got, we’re actually building modern infrastructure and a modern rail system that would transform this region. You know, when you think about the economic impact of connecting dozens of New England cities and tying them into a high performance rail system, that is also connecting New York City in Boston, you will unlock extraordinary economic growth, and also exploring economic opportunity in a lot of cities that that had fallen behind again, and where there has been some economic isolation and, and many of them, including my city, oh, Hartford, Connecticut is 85%, black and brown. This is this is a community where we should all be working to expand opportunity. And this is one important way to do that. Not just for my city, but for many, many others.

Karen Christensen 15:36
That really is one of the reasons that rail is certainly so important to me and becoming more and more important to more people in positions of leadership is that it’s a way to deal with a lot of different intersecting problems of equity and climate. And more and economic development in the sense of separate, you know, that we live in two Americas are very prosperous. America for some, and often hopeless saving America for others.

Luke Bronin 16:13
That’s right. And these things are, as you said, I mean, it’s very much tied into to transportation infrastructure. You know, one of the crises we’ve had in our country in recent decades is that the places where there’s the most economic opportunity are also the places where it’s most expensive to live. And that locks a lot of people out from accessing that opportunity. And, and that’s why transit systems like this really are about opportunity, equity, growth is more inclusive.

Karen Christensen 16:43
And in terms of young people and young people’s future, obviously, that if they feel locked out as a city’s it’s, you know, all the ways in which we can make young people more capable of facing the challenges. But sometimes, I’m sure they feel that the older folk have are leaving to them. The better. But I want to pose what I think is a rather difficult question to this is on my mind, the northeast corridor of Amtrak, which is the most best used train line in the country, the proposal is to use $43 billion to bring it up to state of good repair. But not to make any changes that would actually deal with the, you know, the real challenges of the future, electrification, you know, various other things that would really modernize that line. So how do we balance those immediate priorities? Those long term people have this, you know, there’s this long list of things that need to be done in terms of tunnels and bridges and various other things. I’m not sure what is $43 billion, you should buy quite a lot. But it’s not. It doesn’t get us where I think you want to see us.

Luke Bronin 18:15
No, it doesn’t get us where we were we need to go it again, it is important to maintain a state of good repair is important, and something that we should have been doing with a much greater amount of funding for decade after decade. We have to make those investments, but we shouldn’t stop there. And if we do, I think we’re really doing a disservice to ourselves and to future generations, you know, I want my kids to be able to, to live in a country and to live in a region that has a modern transportation infrastructure. And so that means that we’ve got to dedicate additional funding, I think some of the funding that’s in the American jobs plan can go to some of the early action things that we’ve identified, like building out east west rail in Massachusetts, like making significant improvements on the New York to New Haven line, like some of the, you know, the Danbury line and some other lines that begin to get up more towards the Berkshires as well, some of that work can begin very, very soon, and should be part of it. But I think what we need to do is position ourselves to, to allow this vision to move forward. Knowing that it’s not going to be done tomorrow, it’s not going to be done in a couple of years, you know, this is probably a decade to two decades of work to build out a system like this. But what we should do now is put the funding aside that is necessary to do that, and make the authorizations that are necessary to do that. So that the planning, design and construction can move forward as quickly as possible. And, you know, we may not get a chance like this again, not just when you have, you know, a president who is committed to infrastructure, who a president and a Secretary of Transportation who are longtime advocates of rail, but also congressional leadership that that is deeply affected by this, this plan. And I think is really wants to see transformative investment. You know, you got folks like Richie Neal in Springfield, chair of Ways and Means Committee, who has been a huge advocate for East West rail and Massachusetts, but I think also recognizes the power of a regional network. Similarly, you’ve got Rosa DeLauro, the chairman, chairman of Appropriations Committee, in New Haven, similarly, obviously wants to make sure that that New Haven line is modernized, but understands the power of a truly transformative investment, and what that could mean for the entire region. And it’s worth saying, by the way that we’re talking about a region that has more than 10% of the country’s population and about 14% of G up. And the estimated cost of doing this right is about $105 billion, which is a lot of money. But it’s a smaller fraction by far of the, of an overall infrastructure package than either the population or the economic power of the region. You know, good, good, good art before.

Karen Christensen 21:25
Yeah, one of the things that I’ve noticed is as America tries to regain its position of leadership in the world, it’s certainly in terms of climate. But this, you know, the infrastructure piece of it is, I think, because I work in China a lot that America’s infrastructure is an embarrassment. And, and, as we, you know, really seek to reclaim a sense of leadership and visionary leadership for the country, a project like, like this, and especially, you know, a region that’s ready to use rail, we’re ready to ride, you know, when people who do ride the train, want to ride the train. There what so what can leaders do leaders like you who are not in Washington? how can how can you and your fellow mayors and other local leaders work together to make this a reality as quickly as possible?

Luke Bronin 22:25
Look, I think that this is these are decisions right now that are going to be made in Washington, but they’re going to be made in Washington by folks who are listening to their constituents and listening to their, to their state and local partners. So I would say to anybody who shares this vision, it would be to share your feeling about this, to share your passion for it with your member of Congress, with your member of Congress, your senator, there an end, there’s a relatively couldn’t be a relatively short window of time, you know, we don’t know how long the deliberations over the American jobs plan will take. But I know that the Speaker Pelosi has said that she wants to act on that by July 4. So we could be talking about just a couple of months. And so it’s important that people weigh in now. And again, I don’t think that they’re going to find that folks are going to find a lot of resistance in their members of Congress, I think a lot of the members from this region recognize just how powerful and transformative this could be. But it still makes a big difference when they’re hearing from folks you know, close to home about what it could mean, what it could mean to them. So that’s, that’s one thing. You know, if you want to learn more about it, go to the North Atlantic rail vision is laid out at North Atlantic rail Comm. Just so go and check that out. And if you want to get more involved, then then reach out to us and contact us. Now there is a growing and pretty substantial coalition of local leaders and mayors and labor leaders and businesses and others that are working alongside a growing coalition of members of Congress to advocate for, for this. And then jumping back to the point you made about our competitiveness and looking at countries like China and the kind of investments they’ve been making. They are significantly ahead of us as a country. And catching up is something that we have to do deliberately, we have to do it with a sense of purpose. And the way to start that is by recognizing that just as you said here, in this Northeast region, you have the highest train ridership anywhere in the country, if we’re going to build a model of what a modern transportation system ought to look like, this is the place to do it. So in some ways, we think of the North Atlantic rail vision as a pilot for what ultimately should be a National High Performance rail system, you know, that’s what we should be aiming for. But this is the opportunity to show how it works and to model it and to show its power to again to create economic growth for millions and millions of people.

Karen Christensen 25:12
Well, this is this is the time to do it in this episode of Train Time will be a great kickoff for our efforts to get people to do everything they can to ensure that the American jobs plan is really focused on passenger rail and on our region. Thank you very much indeed for taking the time out to talk to us.

Luke Bronin 25:35
No, thank you. I thank you so much for having me on. I appreciate it and any chance to spread the word and hope to talk with you again soon.