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Gov. Dannel Malloy Green-Lights the Controversial New Britain-Hartford Busway Line

Gregory B. Hladky

April 06, 2011

Fear of losing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal cash that's already been set aside for the controversial New Britain-Hartford Busway (PDF) was a driving force behind Gov. Dannel Malloy's decision this week to give the green light to the $570 million, 9.4-mile-long project.

The mind-boggling $60.3 million-a-mile cost was only one of the complaints critics have about the busway scheme. Another is that it involves ripping up existing rail tracks between the two cities, ending any realistic hope of reviving direct rail service from Waterbury through Bristol (PDF) and New Britain to Hartford.

In an effort to appease pro-rail folks, Malloy is planning to spend an additional $1 million for a study to determine if it's feasible to create a commuter rail line along the remaining track between Waterbury and Bristol.

At his Monday news conference, Malloy admitted he was very worried that cancelling the busway plan would involve “leaving many federal funds on the table.” (The federal share of the busway is a tidy $455 million.)

He said federal transportation gurus “didn't mince words” in warning that killing the busway plan could endanger future federal funding for other Connecticut transportation improvements.

Malloy also insists the busway won't drain available transportation dollars away from other Connecticut projects, such as restoring commuter rail service between Waterbury and the Bristol-New Britain area. Not all busway critics are buying his argument, despite the governor's new study and his promised support for more rail in this state.

“We're worried the funding for the busway, which is quite a lot, will crowd out funding for the rail line,” says Molly McKay, transportation chair for the Connecticut chapter of the Sierra Club.

The Obama administration is clearly throbbing with bureaucratic excitement over the busway. It's one of those “shovel-ready” projects the president would love to be able to point to as proof the billions of dollars he's investing in mass transit is working and creating jobs.

Theoretically, construction on the rapid-transit busway plan could begin this summer and operation could begin by the summer of 2014. (Of course, the fact that Obama will be up for reelection in 2012 and Malloy will be facing the voters again in 2014 might have something to do with their mutual desire to get this sucker moving fast.)

It's not a project that's seen much speed as yet. The busway plan has been around since 1999, and its estimated price tag has ballooned from less than $100 million to that $570 million estimate.

The busway's design includes construction of 11 transit stations (a 12th would be built as part of an expansion at Central Connecticut State University), and the creation of a 4.4-mile multi-use bicycle-pedestrian path along the route. Some additional land would have to be acquired, bridges replaced, highway ramps created and a section of Amtrak's line relocated.

According to state planners, the busway would be about 32-feet wide, including two 12-foot lanes and two four-foot shoulders. There would be additional passing lanes at the transit stations.

Rapid bus transit projects are hot in various nations around the world, with experts seeing them as being quick to get done and cost effective. The Brookings Institution conducted a conference last month on “Latin America's Bus Rapid Transit Boom — Lessons for Improving U.S. Public Transportation.”

According to one of the experts, there are now about 120 cities worldwide with bus rapid-transit corridors, most being created in the last decade. Last year alone, 16 cities, from Bogota, Columbia to Guangzhou, China, completed new bus corridors.

According to its advocates, Bus Rapid Transit (or BRT) results in less gridlock, less pollution, fewer traffic fatalities and quicker commutes.

A major argument for the busway is that it would help cut traffic on I-84 between New Britain and Hartford, one of the busiest highways in Connecticut. The state Department of Transportation is now looking for federal money to pay for a study of possibly putting in tolls on I-84 around Hartford to help pay for highway improvements and even encourage people to use mass transit — like the busway.

Veteran DOT-watchers may have lots of doubts about the agency's projected start and completion dates, but Malloy argues things will be different under his can-do administration.

Michael Nicastro, leader of the Central Connecticut Chamber of Commerce and a big critic of the busway, says Malloy's aides have promised the new study of the Waterbury-Bristol rail line will be done within a year. “I believe [Malloy] is going to stay right on top of the DOT,” he says, his voice filling with hope.

Although he praises Malloy for listening to the busway's opponents, Nicastro still isn't happy about losing that link in the rail connection between Waterbury and Hartford. “We used to take the train from Bristol to Hartford and all the way to Springfield,” says Nicastro, a Bristol resident.

One big attraction of the busway project is that, by some estimates, it would provide as many as 1,000 construction jobs to a recession-weary state. It's the reason unions have been behind the busway, and another major factor for Malloy's decision. This Democratic governor is facing the possibility of laying off state employees if his negotiations for union concessions don't go right, and it would be nice to have some busway jobs he could show on the other side of the ledger.

Last week, Malloy told a conference of transit experts from northeastern states he sees one of his key roles as “pushing money out to projects that are ready to go” to get construction workers employed right away.

As for the hope of a Waterbury-Bristol commuter rail service, Malloy isn't making any promises. He acknowledges that million-dollar study could find there's no need for the project or that it would cost more than it's worth.

At more than $60 million a mile, that same question could still be asked about the busway.

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