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Busway Rides Rough Road

February 15, 2006
By KATIE MELONE, Courant Staff Writer

For years, politicians and transportation officials have said the proposed express busway between New Britain and Hartford is an important step to promote regionalism, stimulate the economy and ease commuter congestion.

The $336 million project - for the past year in jeopardy of losing federal funding - gained momentum recently when Gov. M. Jodi Rell highlighted it in her new transportation initiative. Federal officials also upgraded the project's status last week, making it again eligible for a grant.

But as engineers unfurl design proposals that involve expensive road overhauls and property seizures, some officials and business owners along the proposed 9.4-mile route are questioning whether it's worth the sacrifices.

They question plans to take about a dozen properties, and pieces of several dozen more, and to close or reconfigure some local streets. The state Department of Transportation is too focused on spreading pavement with little regard for the specific needs of the communities involved, critics say.

"They want to carve these pieces out of the towns, claiming it's going to stimulate economic development," said Rodney Mortensen, the mayor of Newington. "I can't picture people getting out of their personal car and onto a bus to ride the rest of the way to Hartford."

The busway project calls for the DOT to pave an abandoned rail line to create a two-way, express bus system with 12 stops in New Britain, Newington, West Hartford and Hartford. Buses of different types - neighborhood circulators and long-distance commuter buses from as far away as Waterbury - also would be able to hop onto the line. It would be dedicated exclusively to buses.

Supporters say the busway, with just seven road crossings, would provide commuters with a faster and less harried ride to and from the towns and cities along the busy corridor. Engineers estimate that it would cut the existing rush-hour bus commute from New Britain to Hartford in half, from about 45 minutes to 22.

The busway designs are not final, the DOT and the governor's office say, and the public will have an opportunity to comment on the plans at a series of public hearings across the region starting tonight. Transportation officials acknowledge that there are concerns about the proposal but say it would be the most effective way to ease pressure on roads.

"Something needs to be done in that corridor in the next 20 years; it's only going to get worse as traffic grows," said Michael Sanders, the DOT's transit administrator.

The most dramatic changes would be in West Hartford, where the state is proposing to spend roughly $50 million to elevate the intersection of New Park and Flatbush avenues above the existing rail crossing, creating an unimpeded path for the Amtrak train and the adjacent bus line.

Engineers considered putting the busway on a bridge above Flatbush Avenue, but would prefer to raise the road instead for safety reasons, officials say. "This is a unique opportunity to correct a very hazardous rail crossing," said Mark Rolfe, manager of construction operations at the state DOT. "You won't have this opportunity for decades again."

But business owners on New Park and Flatbush avenues say the design would force them to operate in the shadow of the new road, flush up against a retaining wall, their visibility eliminated or diminished.

In West Hartford's Elmwood neighborhood, the DOT would take some businesses by eminent domain.

"Locally, it would be a disaster," says Dan Silver, who has owned the Standard Paper Co. on Newfield Avenue, just off Flatbush Avenue on the Hartford-West Hartford border, since 1975. He also wonders how the state will maintain the bus stations and whether they will be safe.

"Maybe it will be used by people who are respectful of everyone's interests, but there's a possibility there will be people who aren't," he said.

West Hartford's endorsement of the design at the intersection is crucial because the DOT needs it in order to meet federal requirements for funding. West Hartford Mayor Scott Slifka said officials there are exploring their options as they learn more about the design, but are still concerned.

"To cut off your nose to spite your face, to remove some thriving businesses, that doesn't seem to make a lot of sense," Slifka said.

In Hartford, the DOT has temporarily shelved a plan to close Flower Street to all traffic so the Amtrak train and proposed busway could pass without the added distraction of car or pedestrian traffic that now traverse the road at the railroad crossing. The city and two abutting property owners, The Courant and Aetna, which own property on either side of the tracks, raised reservations about how the design would affect their businesses.

The DOT acquiesced on Flower Street, but would still prefer to keep it closed.

Even in New Britain, which has a large concentration of residents with no access to cars and where officials have long heralded the busway, Mayor Timothy Stewart is not entirely happy.

"I'm not convinced the present design is going to be beneficial to me," he said, referring to a lack of parking at the proposed downtown station or a link to a nearby parking lot. "We're going to work on the project to make it more palatable to the citizens of New Britain," he said.

Much is riding on the busway, the Capitol Region Council of Governments' "highest priority transportation project for the last five years," according to Thomas J. Maziarz, the agency's director of transportation planning.

In addition to addressing traffic congestion, a mass transit system could help the state secure dollars for highway expansion in the future.

And census figures indicate that commuters in the region may be too heavily dependent on cars. Roughly 85 percent of all the region's commuters drive alone to work, according to 2004 data, and a DOT study says that the roads will become more congested over the next 20 years.

Busway boosters estimate that the line would attract 4,000 new riders. Roughly 13,000 commuters already use existing bus routes that navigate local roads and I-84.

Planners hope the new system will encourage those commuters to either drive to one of a few stations that will have parking or to hitch a ride to a station. Existing commuter buses would be able to enter and use the busway, and certain busway routes could carry buses into neighborhoods to extend service to a wider swath of people.

"This is not a city bus," says Sanders of the DOT. "Once they see the quality of the service we can provide, the travel savings, the cleanliness of the vehicle, we can get a bigger market share."

As for controversy surrounding the project, some politicians say dissent is to be expected on a regional mass project of this magnitude, especially one involving all levels of government.

"Any of these public transportation projects that require property acquisition are confrontational in their very nature," said Hartford's Mayor Eddie Perez, a longtime supporter of the project.

The busway proposal surfaced in the late 1990s, when a $3.7 million set of studies commissioned by the state concluded that a busway would be the least costly option to ease pressure on highways and would attract the highest number of daily riders. The study compared several options: the busway, light rail lines and expanding I-84.

Light rail lines, while popular, are far more expensive than busways, often referred to as "bus rapid transit" systems.

In recent years busways have emerged as the mass transit system of choice in cities such as Seattle, simply because they are far more economical.

One of the nation's first busways opened in Pittsburgh in 1977, and has expanded several times since.

"Let's face it, I think light rail is much sexier than buses," said Bob Grove, a spokesman for the Port Authority of Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located.

But Grove and Brian Cudahy, a mass transit expert who has written several books on the topic, said that light rail cars don't run as frequently as buses and that breakdowns can disrupt the entire line.

A discussion of this story with Staff Writer Katie Melone is scheduled to be shown on New England Cable News each hour today between 9 a.m. and noon.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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