All Aboard?

Story By Chelsea Murray

    Like a fresh Vidalia onion the train fiasco in Waterbury reveals a complexity of layers. In Waterbury, as always, there is more to an issue than meets the eye.

   At first glance this story begins on November 29th, a frosty Monday morning at the Waterbury train station where Congressman Chris Murphy had called a press conference. Murphy, fresh off a surprisingly easy re-election to a third-term in Congress, had organized the press conference in defiance of Governor Jodi Rell’s plan to axe Metro North train service from Bridgeport to Waterbury. Responding to Murphy’s battle cry was Waterbury Mayor Mike Jarjura, Aldermanic Board President, Paul Pernerewski, Waterbury Development Corporation Executive Director, Leo Frank, Main Street Waterbury Executive Director, Carl Rosa, State Senator Joan Hartley, former State Representative Reggie Beamon, City Grants Administrator, Kathy McNamara, a few community activists, and a dozen media representatives.

   Murphy and the gathering were supportive of Rell’s effort to delegate money for heating assistance for low income citizens, but not at the expense of rail service in and out of Waterbury. While most of the gathering at the press conference were Democrats, this was not a partisan issue. Earlier in the day Republican state representatives Anthony D’Amelio and Selim Noujaim released a strong joint statement condemning Governor Rell’s proposal. Waterbury was fighting back on both fronts.

   Moments before the press conference was to begin, Murphy received a text message informing him that Governor Rell had released a statement retracting her budget cuts, and proclaimed her support for the Waterbury train line. No one will know what made Rell change her mind, but a roar from both political parties in Waterbury had to snag her attention.

   With Murphy’s objective in hand he chose to charge ahead with the press conference to draw attention to the train, which is considered an essential building block to Waterbury’s future. Murphy said Waterbury has been fighting for investments in the line for a long time. He stated that Waterbury needs an intermodal transportation center, a new train station and better protection for commuters. Murphy addressed many issues including making the train experience in Waterbury more civilized. Murphy offered hope to Waterbury regarding government efforts to improve transportation.

   Murphy stated that the Governor’s plan to eliminate train service to Waterbury was shocking. “When people hear the news of a discontinuation of service, rather than news of investment in the line, it sends a real chilling message,” Murphy said, “this goes for the people that want to use this line and the businesses that want to come to Waterbury to make use of it.”

   Senator Joan Hartley was introduced at the press conference as the champion of train service in Waterbury. According to Hartley, improvements to the train line has been a priority in Waterbury for years. Hartley said recent mid-day train service was added in Waterbury and had proven to be popular. The next agenda item on her list of improvements is to add a parallel line which will increase – not decrease – train options.

   Raechel Guest addressed the press conference from the perspective of commuters who are dependent on the train. “We need more trains,” Guest said, “not less.” Guest rode the train to New York City every day until she was laid off a few months ago. In her internet blog, Guest later wrote, “the job market in Waterbury is dead. Job placement specialists are advising those of us who have been laid off to seek jobs in Stamford, New York, New Haven and Hartford. Shutting down the branch lines removes our ability to find employment in some of the few places left where companies are hiring.”

   The press conference provided an important platform for political leaders to raise their voices in support of one of the regions most important assets. The train is deeply entrenched in Waterbury’s history. There used to be 86 trains a day in Waterbury and now the city is struggling to maintain 7 trains a day. Abandoned tracks can be found throughout the city dating back to the brass heyday. Each factory had a train car that would pull up to their doors dozens of times a day. According to Wikipedia the Metro North Waterbury Branch stop has 11 tracks; 10 of which are derelict, leaving only one track to transport commuters. McKim, Mead and White designed the Waterbury station in 1909 and modeled it after the Torre del Mangia at the Palazzo Publico in Siena, Italy. The building is currently home to the Waterbury Republican American newspaper and there is no longer a working rail station. According to the Metro North Railroad website, the Waterbury station is 87.5 miles to Grand Central Station, which is the furthest such point in the Metro North system.

   Providing service from Waterbury to New York City is of vital importance to employees, students, tourists and the city’s growing Orthodox Jewish population. Providing transportation options to downtown residents in Waterbury is also of great importance to Carl Rosa of Main Street Waterbury.

   “It’s critical that we continue to provide young professionals and students transit options as we try to increase the population density downtown,” Rosa said.    


Safe and sound?
   When the microphones were packed away and the cameras safely holstered, the politicians at the press conference began to talk about their biggest concern regarding train service to Waterbury – safety.

   Now we begin to peel the onion back to reveal issues of safety, security and a decade long debate about a proposed intermodal transportation center. The area around the train platform looks like a deserted ghost town, certainly not an inviting spot to wait for a train. The run down, state owned SNET building is an eye sore and a possible location for a future parking lot or a train station. At the moment though it provides an isolated spot for vandals to break into cars and steal valuables and what has come to be known as “smash and grab”.

    Safety should be a major concern for a city that prides itself on lowering the crime rate. In recent weeks there have been many incidents in downtown Waterbury – including the train station parking lot – involving car break ins and vandalism. Parag Mehta, a New York City developer, who has renovated the 70 Bank Street building into 18 apartments, and is in the process of doing the same to the historical Apothecaries Hall building, was so concerned for the safety of his tenants that he wrote a letter to the Mayor and the police chief requesting a meeting to address security in downtown Waterbury. Mehta told the Republican American newspaper that he continues to have faith in Waterbury and feels accepted by the community, but his valuable tenants including students and doctors are raising concerns about the neighborhood after a string of vandalism. Mehta did meet with city officials who have agreed to provide a more visible police presence in downtown and by the train station. Mayor Mike Jarjura said that patrol cars have been assigned to sweep the area.

   Ede Reynolds, an outspoken downtown activist, and owner of The John Bale Book Company said, “People downtown have felt safe for a long time, so the security and police have moved onto other areas. This encourages crime to creep back in. It’s a shell game.”

  Reynolds believes the vandalism reflects the dire economic times. Reynolds said that the crime has gotten worse downtown even though the littering issue has improved. With the rise of crime in the downtown Waterbury area some of the commuters using the train do not feel safe.

   Reynolds and her husband, Dan Gaetta, have lived in downtown for the past six years and were themselves victims of recent smash and grab in broad daylight. In early December, the Waterbury Police Department arrested four young men for vandalizing cars in downtown Waterbury using the smash and grab technique. Although optimists may hope that this solves the problem, days after the arrest the smash and grabs continued in downtown. The Waterbury Police Department has advised shoppers in downtown and the Brass Mill Mall not to leave valuables visible to passersby.

   These smash and grabs are happening in broad daylight on Bank and Grand street and obviously this draws some concern for the train parking lot which is a few blocks away, and without improved lighting, makes a perfect set for a low budget slasher flick.

    A frequent train commuter, Lori Lurrivee said, “it isn’t safe up here on the train platform. They should open up a portion of that beautiful building (as she pointed to the Republican American building) and give Waterbury a taste of the old world while they are safe.”

   Ideas have floated around to approach Republican American publisher Bill Pape about using a portion of the newspaper building to create a safe, well-lit train station, complete with a ticket kiosk and food and bathroom options and protection from the elements. This concept is currently being explored by Renaissance Downtown, a Long Island based company crafting a comprehensive revitalization plan for downtown Waterbury.

   When we peel the onion back even further it reveals that the intermodal transportation center is now kaput. Mayor Jarjura said that the issue has a complicated and long history, but as it stands now, years of studies and design have resulted in a scathing rejection from state officials. The concept of the intermodal transportation center was to move city buses off the green, long distance buses off Bank Street, and merge taxi service, buses and rail in a transportation hub along Meadow Street, next to the Republican-American building. Mayor Jarjura told the Observer that the Department of Transportation nixed this idea when it was determined that bus fares would increase due to the move.

   “The buses are staying on the green,” Jarjura said. “But we are going to fix up the shelter areas on the green and build a small train station possibly where the SNET building is.”

   Several months ago Mayor Jarjura appointed his legal advisor, Terry Calderone, and City Grants Administrator, Kathy McNamara, to spearhead the city’s effort to bring state and local officials back to the table to discuss Waterbury’s transportation issues. These talks, the mayor said, are ongoing.

   The state recently completed improvements to train service in Waterbury when it carved out a banana shaped pick-up and drop-off area along Meadow Street next to the train platform.

   Ede Reynolds said the new drop-off area is great but more improvements must be made. Her top priority is bathroom facilities. Reynolds said that without a functioning bathroom people are now using the back of the wall to alleviate their bladders. The smell of urine wafts into commuter nostrils as they wait on the platform, not a welcome scent to start the day.

  “The train has the potential to help revitalize Waterbury,” Reynolds said,  “but the city has to put its attention on it to reap the rewards. If we give up on the train, we’re giving up on ourselves.”