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Stop Dithering and Build the Busway Already

Andy Hart

March 24, 2011

This week, Gov. Dannel Malloy is meeting with proponents and opponents of the proposed 11-stop, 9.5 mile busway from New Britain to Hartford.

For a long time, I opposed the project and even opined against it in print, because I feared mismanagement and because I liked rail better, as do some of my bike-activist friends. Then, on Wednesday, March 16, 2011, the Hartford Public Library hosted a discussion on the busway with Lyle Wray and Sandy Frye of the Capital Region Council of Governments (“CRCOG”).

I can’t say that Lyle and Sandy changed my mind completely, but I have seen the light – the headlights on the busway buses.

All the usual suspects were at the library, including Mike Sanders from the Connecticut Department of Transportation, Hartford City Councilor Larry Deutsch, Malloy administration official Dave McLuskey, as well as representatives from the Connecticut Council of Environmental Justice.

Wray and Frye from CRCOG gave a one-two presentation about the differences between the busway connecting downtown New Britain and Hartford and the proposed commuter rail line from New Haven to Hartford to Springfield.

The busway is rapid transit, with buses running every five minutes, and it stops every half mile to mile, whereas the commuter rail runs every 30 minutes, and stops every 10 miles or so. The busway would be Connecticut’s first real rapid transit program.

I’ll start with the one thing I didn’t like about CRCOG’s sales pitch. The slide presentation clearly stated construction will begin on the busway in Spring 2011 – which is like, now. But we’re not close to shovels in the ground, so operations in 2014 seem far away.

An application was due recently (like within days of the publication of this column), and the fact that if approved for the application, we still have to wait for money. So we may not see dirt moving until August this year, or later. I’m an adult, I can handle a realistic timeframe. Tell me when we really expect buses to roll.

In reality, if we think that construction started when buildings like the Crowley VW dealership got knocked down on the corner of Flatbush and New Park Avenues in Hartford, the busway has already begun. We’ve taken dozens of buildings in eminent domain for this busway. What do we do with the empty lots if we can it?

And this is why I think we must persevere on the busway. We have to trust the engineers at the DOT who have been working on this project for more than a decade because we have that much manpower and time invested into it. I am no fan of the Department of Tar, but we need movement.

This is a good investment, especially when compared to subsidies for the auto-centric transit system we now have. Wray noted the subsidy is less than $1.50 per rider per ride, whereas we subsidize Metro-North to the tune of $20 per rider per ride, and who knows how much more on the single-passenger car transport system.

If we walk away and pursue the train that the opponents of the busway from Bristol want us to build, we have to start all over again. We would go to the back of the federal handouts line.

Of the $567 million cost, the federal government is picking up 80 percent of Connecticut’s tab for this busway. We Nutmeggers are on the hook for maybe $113 million, according to CRCOG’s numbers.

Construction costs in reality always run higher, and will with the rising cost of oil. So let’s finish the plan, while it remains affordable.

Obvious flaws jump out when talking to people who have consulted on the project, or studied it. For example, the busway is built on an industrial rail corridor, and some of the stops seem to plunk you square in the middle of car-ville.

Like the Crowley VW stop. Who is going to walk to Home Depot from there? One of the questioners at the Library’s forum wondered how long we will let five foot weeds grow in the Crowley lot.

Sanders of the DOT suggested we should place a sign there to let people know about the busway. The next night, I rode my bicycle out by the Crowley VW site to check it out. A few minutes later, I bumped into some friends at a local watering hole who had also been at the meeting.

As we talked about the busway, we came to a few conclusions: DOT is not in the business of building a ridership. DOT assumes that a latent ridership already using mass transit will migrate to the busway.

In order for the busway to overcome the industrial route it is on, and to build ridership, and to get people out of their cars, we need to begin selling the idea now. CT Transit will be the quasi-public corporation running the show.

So we need a marketing campaign, pronto. First, we pick a name. I like HART – Hartford Area Rapid Transit. Maybe we have a naming contest. Whatever, we have to start the messaging to convince people to change their lifestyles.

Rapid transit isn’t just a way to get around, it is a lifestyle change. People like me, who already bicycle around and carpool and look for way to get out of their cars, will adopt to the system instantly, or so I hope.

Yet how do you convince someone from Southington who commutes to Hartford to drive to New Britain, jump a bus, and be in Hartford in 20 minutes, and, incidentally, give up your ability to take your car on a lunchtime errand to an area that HART doesn’t serve. Perhaps $5 a gallon gas will jump start the market for the busway.

This is the central question, and as much as I love CRCOG and Sandy and Lyle, they aren’t up to this job. Mike Sanders is correct that a sign needs to be placed in the empty lot promising the soon to be rapid transit. But even more needs to be done to – pardon the pun – pave the way.

We need to educate people about it, and ramp up their expectations, and start pushing for development in downtown Hartford, New Britain and all along the corridor.

Sometimes, the transit oriented development that represents the promised economic boom for the busway takes 25 years to arrive. Given the looming oil crisis, Connecticut must be ahead of the curve, and must be in a position to have a seamless transition to HART.

If it works, and with proper planning (details oriented, like, will there be wireless on the buses?) and salesmanship, it can. To give up now is to throw away years of planning and go to the back of line. We can’t afford to do that. So please, Gov. Malloy, throw your hat in with the busway.

Reprinted with permission of the The Hartford News.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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