Hartford's Star Shuttle has turned into a goodwill ambassador for the city
April 28, 2009
I boarded the Star Shuttle at 12:36 p.m. at Stop 11 on the corner of Church and Main streets on a recent Friday after a six-minute wait. There were two other passengers aboard: an elderly man with crutches; and a neatly dressed middle-aged woman who quietly gazed out the bus windows.
The Star Shuttle was launched in September, 2005, just three months after the grand opening of the Connecticut Convention Center the previous June. With 15 stops along its loop, the idea was to provide free transportation to most of downtown's restaurants, and all of its hotels.
The Star Shuttle also passes by the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, the Ancient Burying Ground, the XL Center, Capital Community College and the UCONN School of Business.
As we made our way back toward the Marriott, the man with crutches got out at the corner of Columbus and State. That left just the three of us.
"I enjoy it very much," said driver Dan Zimowski after we arrived back at the Marriott. "Sometimes you get all local business people, other times you get the tourists."
"I'm a tourist," volunteered Lee Taylor.
Taylor and her husband, an economist working for the Kingdom of Bahrain, were in town for a couple of days for a conference at UCONN to try to figure out how to fix the financial mess the world is in. The couple was from London, but had been living in Bahrain about a year, and had arrived in Hartford the previous night.
Taylor had the day to sightsee, and she began by making the loop with Zimowski to get the lay of the land. It was true what David Lee, general manager of CTTransit had told me — Star Shuttle bus drivers are tour guides.
"We made a real effort when this project began to educate drivers who choose to work the shuttle about downtown Hartford," said Lee.
The Star Shuttle averages between 175 and 200 riders on an average weekday when there are no big events. The all-time record for riders in one day — 3,597 — was set last July 5 during the annual convention of the Islamic Circle of North America. But Zimowski says on any Saturday night it's standing-room only.
"Sometimes you get 70 people on the bus," he said.
Dressed in Ralph Kramden shorts and sporting a goatee, Zimowski is a good ambassador for Hartford. Firing up the engine, he asks Taylor if she has decided where she wants to go first.
"Yes, I'm going to stop at the next one, the Atheneum," answers Taylor.
She tells me Hartford is "very neat and small."
"I didn't expect it to be so small," she says. "It's very good. It's got all the historical things. The layout of the town is very well organized, so you can pick the places you want to go."
The Star Shuttle costs about $500,000 a year to operate, an expense covered by the Connecticut Department of Transportation. CDOT spends about $100 million annually to operate bus systems around the state, although the Star Shuttle is the only one that's free.
"We do it really for the public relations benefit," says Michael Sanders, transit administrator for CDOT. "It's really done to support the city."
As long as local businesses are appreciative and the shuttle is giving people a better impression of Hartford, Sanders says it's doing its job.
"That's not to say that if we ran empty buses all day long we would run it forever," he adds.