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
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
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
"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,"
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
"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
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.
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