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Consultant: Hartford-To-New Britain Busway Needs A Stylish Image To Draw Riders

DON STACOM

October 19, 2009

HARTFORD - Making a success of the long-planned New Britain busway will take skillful marketing even more than engineering and construction, according to the man who built Cleveland's downtown rapid-transit bus system.

"When I got to Cleveland, I heard 'suits don't ride buses,'" Joseph Calabrese told a forum of Connecticut transit planners and legislators. "Bus, unfortunately, in some areas is a four-letter word."

With the Hartford-to-New Britain busway plan entering a make-or-break stage, public transit advocates on Thursday invited Calabrese to explain how he developed downtown Cleveland's successful HealthLine bus system. The key is to build high-end facilities with frequent, reliable service and make the rider's experience as close to the quality of a light-rail ride as possible, he said.

"My goal was to build a high-class, high-quality operation. I call it 'rail light,'" said Calabrese, chief of the public transit agency in Greater Cleveland. "And it's image, image, image."

Connecticut is banking on the New Britain busway to draw as many as 15,000 riders a day and relieve traffic on badly congested I-84.

In an uncommonly candid discussion, representatives from the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and other transit advocacy groups acknowledged that bus-based systems around the country face a common challenge: Drivers would rather park their cars to ride a subway or light-rail line than a bus. Middle-class commuters who would cheerfully embrace a sleek, modern light-rail system are likely to shun buses, thinking of them as noisy, bouncy, slow-moving, foul-smelling and perhaps loaded with panhandlers and vagrants.

But new systems of rapid-transit buses known as BRTs are entirely unlike that, said Kate Slevin, executive director of Tri-State, which sponsored the forum at the Legislative Office Building.

"Bus rapid transit is the wave of the future," she said.

Rapid-transit buses generally use a dedicated right of way, such as the 9.6-mile New Britain to Hartford route, to bypass other traffic. The system is engineered to dramatically cut ride times: Buses make only a few designated stops, platforms are elevated so riders get on and off quickly, and tickets are sold at the stations so there's no time-consuming lineup at a fare box onboard. The buses themselves are usually stylishly designed to look like European-style, light-rail cars, and are painted with catchy color schemes and logos to give the system an identifiable brand.

In Cleveland's case, that brand turned into big money last year: The University Hospitals of Cleveland bought naming rights to the system and dubbed it the HealthLine. The 25-year deal pays the transit authority $250,000 a year, and Calabrese said that money is plowed back into maintenance of the brick pavers, extensive landscaping, decorative stations and other amenities.

Calabrese's agency put $2 million into helping a private company design ultra-sleek buses for HealthLine, and has gotten back all of it along with some profit through a licensing deal with the manufacturer. Calabrese believes a stylish system is essential to attracting "choice riders" the middle- and upper-income customers who can easily afford to drive, instead.

Those riders also can constitute a politically powerful support base for public transit systems. In cities where they're not onboard, politicians and bureaucrats can order fare increases or allow service to deteriorate with little fear of repercussion.

Connecticut's transportation department is two months away from filing its final application for federal aid for the New Britain busway, now estimated to cost $572 million. Sometime before late April, Connecticut will learn whether it is getting the 80 percent federal grant.

Michael Sanders, busway chief for the DOT, said his staff will be ready to pave the 9.6-mile abandoned rail line, replace a major bridge over Route 9, build new overpasses and construct stations in time for passenger service to start before Christmas 2013.

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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