Commuter Transportation Battle Has Been Heating Up
May 26, 2009
NEW BRITAIN — - Just across Columbus Boulevard from the police headquarters parking lot, the scruffy patch of vacant land beneath the Route 71 overpass looks utterly unremarkable.
Except that this is the crossroads for the future of mass transit in central Connecticut.
In a few years, a rapid-transit busway to Hartford might start out a few hundred yards west of here, offering commuters an option to traffic-choked I-84.
Or, perhaps the rail tracks that once crossed this spot will be restored to create a Waterbury-to-Hartford commuter train system.
But it looks like Connecticut can't have both.
There doesn't seem to be room to run trains and buses on the same route, and choosing between them is turning into an increasingly tense struggle dividing politicians and business owners from Hartford to Bristol.
"The busway is a cornerstone for our whole downtown [redevelopment] plan transit is part of what attracted our developer," said New Britain Mayor Timothy Stewart, whose Republican administration is banking heavily on Arete Development's proposal to revive downtown by building as many as 1,000 apartments.
"The busway was looking viable when it was proposed, but times have changed since then," said Democratic Rep. Donald DeFronzo, a former New Britain mayor and now co-chairman of the General Assembly's transportation committee. "We may have to reassess this now. This is an issue that has generational impact."
DeFronzo and Stewart are longtime adversaries, but the busway-rail divide goes beyond politics.
Much like two Old West towns competing for a stagecoach route, Bristol and New Britain are each struggling to host the first significant commuter transit operation in central Connecticut. If the busway is built, New Britain would be the southern hub with a heated, enclosed downtown station.
"That busway is going to bring people downtown, it's going to give New Britain the shot in the arm that it needs," said Charles Paonessa, a contractor who has done business in New Britain for more than 35 years. "When's it going to open? I'd take it now. I don't want to fight Hartford traffic anymore."
But the busway has been on the drawing board since 1998, and many lawmakers have bristled as cost estimates have climbed from $75 million to $569 million.
Two years ago, state Rep. Frank Nicastro, D-Bristol, suggested rehabilitating the old freight rail line to provide commuter service from Waterbury to Hartford through Bristol. Bristol is stuck with a 17-acre vacant lot formerly the Bristol Centre Mall alongside the tracks, and city officials dream of a busy commuter rail station there drawing new residential and commercial development. Recently, Nicastro's brother, Michael Nicastro, chief of Bristol's chamber of commerce, became one of the idea's main proponents.
"It just makes sense. The tracks are already there we don't have to build something new," Frank Nicastro said.
The problem is several miles of old rail bed between New Britain and Newington. The busway would use that space and then run to Hartford alongside the Amtrak main line. But the most direct rail route to Hartford from Waterbury, Plymouth, Bristol, Plainville and New Britain would need that same right of way. The only other rail route requires a detour from New Britain south to Berlin and then back up to Newington on the Amtrak line, a move that adds 5 or 6 miles and plenty of time to the commute.
The dispute over that New Britain-to-Newington corridor has grown testier in recent weeks. Speaking to a Bristol chamber of commerce meeting last week, state transportation Commissioner Joseph Marie suggested that the Waterbury rail route is a long-term project at best. Bristol business leaders were clearly disappointed, and moments later, DeFronzo said it might make sense to slow the busway project until after a thorough study of the rail route.
DOT officials have said all along that the corridor is wide enough for buses or trains, but not both. But in Bristol, DeFronzo said that Marie had told him the busway and rail tracks might be able to share the corridor.
When he was asked if that's possible, Marie declined to answer, saying that one of his deputies would address the question later. The next day, though, a DOT spokesman also declined to respond directly. The spokesman said only that the DOT doesn't see the busway and a long-term Waterbury-to-Hartford rail project as incompatible and that it doesn't want to postpone busway progress for a rail study that could take two years.
Mass transit activist Richard Stowe considers the busway an overpriced highway that will hinder expansion of Connecticut's rail system. And DeFronzo and Rep. David McCluskey, D- West Hartford, say a rail link makes more sense than a 9.4-mile bus route, especially because it would connect in Waterbury to New York-bound Metro-North trains.
The busway has some big advantages: It's far along in the design process and in line for $275 million in federal funding. Stewart and others said the state would be foolish to give up the tens of millions spent in engineering the busway, and they pointed out that service is targeted to start in 2013. There's no plan for the rail line, and the infrastructure would have to be rebuilt entirely, the DOT said.
Michael Sanders, DOT's transit administrator, said his busway team has made major progress this year. A new plan for bus routes will offer express service from Cheshire, Waterbury, Bristol and Meriden, and routes from the busway will include a link to St. Francis and Hartford hospitals, one to Westfarms mall and another to Central Connecticut State University, Sanders said. The goal is to attract workers, students and people who would otherwise be jamming I-84 while driving for errands, shopping or medical appointments.
"We've been projecting 15,000 people a day using some part of the busway 11,000 existing riders and 4,000 new," Sanders said. "Our new [projection] models are showing we'd actually be up a little over that."
There doesn't seem to be room to run trains and buses on the same route, and choosing between them is turning into an increasingly tense struggle.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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