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No Turning Back On Busway

Busway Has Come Too Far To Abandon It Now And Start From Scratch

Tom Condon

January 23, 2011

A guy from a transportation committee in Bristol called me a week ago. In the course of the conversation I asked about his committee, and he replied, "The first thing we have to do is kill that New Britain-to-Hartford busway."

No, I said. That is the last thing you should do. The busway is a good idea, one that can be brought to fruition in three years. Killing it now would be totally wrongheaded.

The caller reflected the position of the Greater Bristol Chamber of Commerce, which has mounted a campaign to scuttle the busway, on the theory that Bristol would be better served by the rebirth of the long-abandoned Waterbury-Bristol-New Britain-Hartford rail line.

It's good that Bristol is rebuilding its downtown, and good that it wants to be served by transit. And while it would be wonderful if all of the state's cities were connected by commuter rail, we have to play the cards we are holding.

When planning began 14 years ago, after a study showed the I-84 corridor was becoming heavily congested, a bus rapid transit project was what the state said it could afford. Officials visited bus rapid transit projects in Pittsburgh and Ottawa, and saw that they worked. There was some bungling by the state Department of Transportation about a decade ago, but the project has taken a long time mostly because major transportation projects take a long time. They shouldn't, but they do.

Nonetheless, this is now a bird almost in the hand; it is scheduled to open in 2014. The last major piece of federal funding, $266 million in from the Federal Transit Administration, is in the pipeline, awaiting approval by the agency and Congress. The Transit Administration was just burned by the governor of New Jersey; who killed a rail tunnel to new York that the agency approved, and so wants an assurance from Gov. Dan Malloy that the project has his support, according to sources close to the project. A strong statement of enthusiastic support from Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra, like the one New Britain Mayor Timothy Stewart has offered, also would help.

Kill the busway now and the whole process would have to start over in Washington. The return to square one would mean, former DOT commissioner Joe Marie told me last year, a minimum of 10 years and a cost of $1 billion with needed improvements to the Waterbury branch line before a train left Bristol.

And if the rail service were built, it's unlikely it could support more than four or five trains a day, at least in its first few years.. How much demand is there for Bristol-to-Hartford commuting? The advantages of the busway are flexibility and level of service. It will be possible for commuter buses from Bristol and other communities to drive to New Britain, get on the busway and avoid the I-84 congestion. The plan is to have buses from Bristol toward Hartford every 12 to 15 minutes during rush hour (and every three to five minutes on the busway itself). Bristol can have that service in three years.

Take the bus. The busway doesn't preclude the eventual restoration of rail service. Laying a track down a road is not that big a deal; dozens of U.S. cities have done it in recent years to bring back trolleys.

When planning began for the busway in 1997, there were just a few bus rapid transit programs. Since then, bus rapid transit has established itself in many cities here and abroad, often with dedicated lanes on existing roads (something Geater Hartford should also be working on). They feature such things as signal prioritization at intersections and electronic schedule tracking, so a passenger knows then the next bus is coming.

The one difficult thing to defend is the cost, which is gone up significantly from poorly prepared preliminary estimates. But, with better analysis, DOT has held the cost at around $570 million for several years, and it's still lower than rail or widening I-84. The federal government is paying 80 percent of the tab for the busway, and if we don't use the money, some other state will. When the $266 million is approved, the state will have to bond about $52 million to cover its share of the project. Were the state to kill the project, it would have to pay back about $50 million in federal money that's already been spent. Let's finish the busway.

The service would be a boon to the region, notably to Hartford. One of the impediments to getting more employers to locate downtown is the traffic. Fast commuter bus service would help solve that problem, especially if it were expanded to the HOV lanes of I-91and I-84, north and east of the city, respectively. That, along with the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter rail, will give the city the transit it needs to be a regional hub. What we're doing now isn't working very well; this could make a major difference.

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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