PRO: Busway Is Well Down Road To Being Part of The Answer
By Timothy T. Stewart
November 01, 2010
For decades, the State of Connecticut and specifically, the central region surrounding Hartford, has struggled with transportation challenges that impede opportunities for economic growth.
Enhancements to the status quo including highway expansions, bridge construction, and bus and commuter train fleet additions have reached the limit of present transportation systems to accommodate increased usage.
The proposed bus rapid transit (BRT) project between downtown New Britain and Union Station in Hartford has been in development since 1997. The project was an outcome of a major investment by CT DOT and regional planning agencies to study the I-84 corridor traffic congestion. The study included existing infrastructure that linked cities in the central Connecticut region including West Hartford, Bristol and New Britain through to Hartford.
A BRT was selected as the preferred alternative of proposed solutions as the speed, flexibility and ease of use offers the highest utility and least expensive cost structure. An exclusive roadway linking cities and bus routes will also accommodate the increased transportation demands of future development within the corridor. Similar projects have been successful in Pittsburgh and Ottawa and projected BRT ridership figures exceed those of any rail project through the same corridor.
As a New Britain City Council member in the late ‘90s, I was not a big busway fan, but as I have become better educated on the research behind the BRT and the details of its construction and operations, I have a much greater appreciation for its potential and its benefits when compared against other alternatives.
Those currently beating the drum to kill the New Britain Hartford Busway, such as the Bristol Chamber of Commerce with their regionally unfriendly media attack, are grossly oversimplifying the issue by making transportation strategy sound like a simple up or down choice between the BRT and light rail. The key question is not one of either or, but of timing, as both the BRT and rail fit into Connecticut’s long-term transportation strategy.
Busses are just one piece of the overall transportation strategy in the state. There needs to be multi-modal solutions to fit the needs of different demographics in impacted communities. The average persons’ perception of busses is that only poor people ride busses because they can’t afford a car. While trains may have a somewhat “sexier” image, they are more costly and heavily subsidized by the state. Both are needed to accommodate preferences which will then result in increase ridership and take cars off the highways.
One size does not fit all for transportation needs. High-speed rail would be difficult to implement in the central Connecticut corridor where frequent stops would be inefficient. That’s where a BRT system makes more sense to accommodate the needs of multiple urban areas in a metropolitan setting.
Like any federally recognized demonstration project, the BRT project is a labyrinth of funding and approvals which has taken an inordinate amount of time to get to the cusp of construction where it is today. Governors, transportation and local government officials have come and gone with varying strengths of BRT support. But Connecticut cannot afford to change its transportation strategy election after election like a change of clothes. We need to follow through to get the transportation relief that the BRT can provide in the intermediate term, rather than the long distance relief from the railway.
Critics have cited the cost of the BRT as a reason to abandon it, as the original $80 million cost estimate has risen. The reality is that with 95 percent of the design work completed, all rights granted and property acquired, the significant investment already made is a compelling argument to move forward.
Another myth promulgated by BRT opponents is that federal grants already awarded to the busway are transferrable to rail. Rail is on its own project path, as seen by the recent award of $120 million to the New Haven-Hartford- Springfield high-speed rail line. Any local rail project is years and millions of dollars away as it requires the lengthy approval and grant process that the BRT has already gone through.
Connecticut residents need and deserve a regional transportation strategy and I support efforts to bring both the BRT and rail upgrades to our state. BRT naysayers are doing permanent damage to that necessary spirit of regionalism by erroneously framing this critical decision as an “either or” between rail and the BRT, not the “both” that it can and should be.