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State Wants Busway Project Back On Road

August 7, 2005
By STEPHANIE REITZ, Courant Staff Writer

State transportation officials are racing an Aug. 15 deadline to reverse the federal government's doubts about the proposed busway that would link New Britain and Hartford.

Millions of federal dollars have been promised to Connecticut for the busway if it is launched, but the state Department of Transportation cannot apply for a penny of it without regaining the Federal Transit Administration's confidence in the project.

"We've had some high-level discussions with them, and we believe that the [Aug. 15] submittal will be satisfactory to them," said James Boice, chief of the DOT's bureau of policy and planning.

"The project might seem to have languished, but important progress has been made," he said. "It's just the kind of progress that's not visible to the public quite yet."

The project, a bus-only route running 9.6 miles between New Britain and Hartford, would launch in 2011 if all remains on schedule, state officials said. One key portion of that schedule: regaining the federal government's faith in Connecticut's ability to deliver what it promises.

Earlier this year, the FTA downgraded the $335 million project from "recommended" status to "not recommended."

Federal officials expressed concerns about increases in the project's costs; lackluster progress in hitting certain milestones, such as securing rights of way along the route; and whether Connecticut has the financial capability and commitment to follow through with the project.

The busway proposal is part of a federal program called New Starts. Transit projects compete against each other for the right to seek federal money.

States and transit agencies are re-evaluated every year to determine their progress. If their project receives a "not recommended" rating one year, however, they can keep their spot in the New Starts program by addressing the problems in the following year.

Velvet Snow, a spokeswoman for the FTA, said the agency will review the information that Connecticut submits this month, then report in early 2007 to Congress about whether the busway should return to "recommended" status.

State and regional transportation officials said they are confident that the question of the state's commitment and finances can be easily answered, especially in light of Gov. M. Jodi Rell's new $1.3 billion transportation improvements package.

They say the package, which includes multimillion-dollar investments in new rail cars and buses, shows that Connecticut is serious about improving mass transit.

Equally important, they said, it takes pressure off the state's transportation operating funds because the improvements will be financed by selling bonds and increasing the tax on profits from the sale of petroleum products.

The more complicated questions involve reaching a deal with Amtrak to let the state run part of the busway on Amtrak property parallel to its tracks and designing a plan for squeezing the bus-only lanes into the tight spaces in downtown Hartford without forcing passengers to cross busy streets or train tracks.

Those design and right-of-way issues all affect whether the state can keep the projected cost stable at $337 million or whether it might increase again.

The federal government recently authorized $55 million to be spent over several years for the busway if it is launched. However, the state can apply for that money only if it meets several requirements, including getting back on the "recommended" list.

Much of the current costs for planning and designing the busway are being financed from a separate funding source: almost $27 million in "earmarks," or special grants, that the state's congressional delegation has set aside during the past few years from the mass-transit portion of federal transportation bills.

The state has set aside $6.7 million in matching money, or 25 percent of the federal total. An additional $5 million in federally earmarked money was added last week.

Although the earmarked money is similar to a bank account from which the state can withdraw money, the $55 million authorization is similar to a parent's promise to someday fund a child's college education if the student is accepted.


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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