August 26, 2006
By MONICA POLANCO, Courant Staff Writer
NEW BRITAIN - Gov. M. Jodi Rell signed a $2.3 billion transportation enhancement bill Friday that includes $52 million for the New Britain-Hartford busway and $146 million for new rail service from New Haven to Hartford to Springfield.
The bill, part of an effort to reduce traffic congestion, comes on the heels of a $1.3 billion transportation package passed last year.
The newly signed package may represent the largest sum spent on transportation in Connecticut history, said Chris Cooper, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.
"It's a comprehensive package that really addresses every mode of transportation," Cooper said. "It's going to have a huge effect on our rail lines."
"A strong transportation system is vital to a strong economy," Rell said. "Connecticut is blessed with a strong 21st-century economy, and we need a 21st-century transportation system to support it."
Federal funds are expected to cover about 80 percent of the cost of the New Britain-Hartford busway, which would start in downtown New Britain, run through Newington and West Hartford and end near Union Station. The two-way rapid bus line, which is expected to cost about $336 million, has been removed from its previous status on the federal "not recommended" list, Cooper said.
"I think the reason it wasn't recommended for funding last time was we weren't far enough on the design, for one thing," he said. "The not recommended status was never a case that they didn't think it was a good idea or proposal."
The Federal Transit Administration is expected to give state officials the go-ahead to begin the final design process this year, Cooper said. If all goes as expected, construction could begin as early as 2007 and end in 2011.
Officials in New Britain are hoping that the project will be part of the revitalization of its downtown. A vacant building at 327 Main St. that was once a downtown supermarket was demolished with the expectation that the site will house the bus depot.
"It an exciting opportunity for us, and I'm glad that it's at least getting the required funding to push it forward," said Mayor Timothy Stewart. "There are still some obstacles that have to be overcome, especially with Amtrak's right of way, so we still got a long way to go."
The proposal popped up in the late 1990s, after a $3.7 million set of studies commissioned by the state found that a busway would be the least expensive way to relieve highway traffic and lure the most riders. Engineers estimate that the express bus would reduce commuting time from New Britain to Hartford in half.
Supporters of the project say the busway would reduce the region's dependence on cars and offer people who don't have cars or who have disabilities better access to jobs, shopping and medical care.
The new rail service from New Haven to Hartford to Springfield is at least two years away, Cooper said. Officials have completed a feasibility study on the proposed rail line and expect to prepare an environmental document over the next 18 months that must be reviewed by state and federal regulatory agencies.
"It'll be two to three years before we would ever be ready to start construction on it," Cooper said. "Preparing a new rail line is not something that you just go out there and break ground on immediately. There's a great deal of prep work that has to be done."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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