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Stop The Busway; More Value In Rail Upgrade

Michael D. Nicastro

February 23, 2010

The proposed New Britain to Hartford busway is an expensive, limited solution to central Connecticut's mass transit problems that could be more cost effectively addressed by restoration of rail service from Waterbury to Hartford. Officials should stop the busway project.

First, funding the estimated $573 million busway will take money from other state projects. Further, the potential of 4,000 new bus riders does not justify the size of the capital outlay along with the $7.5 million annual operating cost.

The state Department of Transportation has been working with the Federal Transit Administration to secure $275 million under the FTA's New Starts program. No contract has been signed, but DOT is optimistic because $45 million of the total was identified in President Barack Obama's proposed budget. The $45 million needs to survive in the president's budget and then win approval from the House and Senate. No guarantees that will happen, or that the amount will remain the same.

In addition, New Starts funding is sent on the federal government's timetable. So although the federal government may be contractually committed to the entire $275 million (if and when a New Starts Full Funding agreement is executed), the state will need to bear most of the cash outlay and wait to see how quickly the money is reimbursed by Washington.

The second largest piece of funding will come from what the DOT refers to as "flexing Federal Highway Administration funds." Every year, Connecticut receives funding to maintain our interstate highways and other projects. The DOT moves those funds from project to project and from fiscal year to fiscal year.

In 2012 and 2013, DOT plans to shift approximately $116 million of federal funds to the busway. These are the same years that Connecticut is facing a deficit of close to $3 billion. An important fact because, at a Nov. 19 hearing, Commissioner Joseph F. Marie said, "Connecticut has more than $2.5 billion in unfunded roadway and bridge programs and more than $1.2 billion in unfunded needs on our transit infrastructure." So, assuming the state gets the same federal funding for Connecticut in the next bill through Congress, moving money to the busway project will likely postpone other critical state highway work.

The last large piece of funding for the busway will come from the sale of state bonds, up to another $60 million. Again, all for one project.

Once built, the busway will have an annual operating cost of $7.5 million ($9 million actual expenses minus estimated fares) as well as requiring repair and maintenance that many of our roads and bridges now so desperately need.

All of this money is for a 9-mile road that may or may not remove 4,000 commuters from I-84, and unlike rail will not remove one truck.

So why not look at lower-cost alternatives? In this case, a usable and upgradable rail line from Waterbury to Hartford that would serve thousands more people and at a lower cost per person, per mile or whatever measure you choose than the busway proposal.

We're told that going back now would take 10 years to 12 years. But other states have moved faster. Massachusetts has launched its Knowledge Corridor project 52 miles of rail for passengers and freight through Springfield, Northampton and Greenfield up to Northfield.

The Massachusetts project kicked off June 26, 2008, and was funded with $70 million of federal funds last month, when we received $40 million to double-track the New Haven to Springfield line from Meriden to Newington. Total cost of the Knowledge Corridor is $75 million. The work will begin this spring and trains will roll in 2012. All for $500 million less and two years sooner than the first bus rolls along the busway.

We should reconsider spending close to $600 million in precious capital when lower cost and viable solutions are available. Restoration of the Waterbury rail line to Hartford will serve all of central Connecticut, including the busway communities, and at a lower cost.

We need leaders who will look at these projects with a critical eye. Sometimes leadership is the courage to say no, no matter how attractive a deal may look on the surface.

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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