Recent commentaries on the New Britain-Hartford busway and the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter rail service present these planned projects as competing alternatives — pick one and drop the other. We need both. These projects, which will serve distinctly different needs, are complementary pieces of a much-needed rapid transit system for the Hartford metropolitan region.
The proposed busway will serve our most congested traffic corridor — I-84 west of downtown Hartford. Designed to function like a light-rail line, it is a 9.4-mile bus-only roadway built in a rail right-of way between New Britain and downtown Hartford. It includes 11 convenient stations, uniquely branded buses and frequent service — a bus every two to four minutes during peak periods.
It creates a fast and reliable transit alternative for suburban residents commuting to Hartford and for transit-dependent residents of Hartford and New Britain — buses on congested I-84 simply cannot match the speed and reliability of travel afforded by the busway.
As a bonus, a busway can be much more flexible than rail. Buses will exit the busway in downtown Hartford and circulate directly to major employers. Beyond the New Britain-Hartford service, commuter express buses from communities such as Bristol and Waterbury also can use the busway to bypass congested sections of I-84.
The bottom line on the busway compared to rail alternatives is that it achieves higher ridership at a lower cost. Previous studies compared the busway to rail options such as Waterbury-to-Hartford rail service and found the busway more cost-effective. Simply put, if we are to build a regional rapid transit system, this is the best corridor to start with and the busway is the most cost-effective option to build.
The New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter rail project aims to improve and expand passenger rail service on the existing Amtrak line between New Haven and Springfield with peak service every 30 minutes. The existing 62-mile track would be upgraded, four new stations would be built, and trains would be added to provide more frequent and convenient service. Unlike the busway serving the corridor west of Hartford, the commuter trains will serve towns north and south of Hartford. It will also serve a much larger geographic market and very different transportation functions.
The commuter rail project will link the three cities to one another, link all three to Bradley International Airport, and link the Hartford-Springfield area to New York City.
The Gallis Report, an economic growth study completed in 1999, pointed out that Connecticut's economic growth was being stymied by an overtaxed transportation system and deteriorating connections to New York and the global economy. Better connection by commuter rail to New York City is crucial to strengthen an essential transportation and economic link to the nation's largest center of commerce.
Both projects will provide important but different economic benefits. The busway will reinforce downtown Hartford's role as the region's primary employment center by making it easier for employers to attract employees from west of Hartford. It will also provide economic development opportunities at each of the 11 stations along the busway.
The commuter rail project also provides economic development opportunities at or near stations in Hartford and other communities such as Meriden, New Haven, Windsor, Enfield and Springfield. But it also will benefit the entire regional economy by improving connections to the global economy.
Both projects are necessary to reduce the region's dependence on the automobile. The busway is now at a critical stage: Much of the design and engineering work is done, and this summer the state Department of Transportation and the Federal Transit Administration will prepare the agreement to commit the $275 million federal share. With a funding agreement so close, now is not the time to abandon the project. Now is the time to move forward with both the busway and commuter rail.
• Lyle Wray is executive director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments ( www.crcog.org).
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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