Advocates of the Hartford-to- New Britain busway staged a rally Friday to head off a proposed law that would scrap the $567 million project by stripping the state's share of its funding.
Canceling the busway now would waste federal grants, leave I-84 congestion to worsen for years and damage economic development initiatives along the busway's 9.6-mile corridor, supporters said at a press conference at the Legislative Office Building.
With time appearing to run short for a decision on the proposal, a coalition of business, labor and environmental groups called on Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to endorse the project.
Meanwhile, opponents who view the project as an outdated boondoggle are also ramping up their efforts to block it. The long battle over the busway could be in its final months.
Malloy's office said Friday that he supports the busway concept, but won't press for full funding until he's met with its supporters, detractors and the state Department of Transportation. "He's not going to pull the trigger on it until that meeting," a spokeswoman said.
Both sides see Malloy's decision as pivotal. If he rejects the idea, the Federal Transit Administration is likely to refuse Connecticut's bid for $266 million in aid. Advocates say his support would go a long way to landing that money.
"This busway creates construction jobs with good wages and good benefits," Jeff Merrow, business manager of Laborers Union Local 611. "In two months we could have 900 people working."
William Millerick, president of the New Britain Chamber of Commerce, called for ending the debate about the busway, in which opponents are seeking to use the funds to restore passenger service on the Waterbury-to- Bristol-to-Hartford rail line.
"It's time to start putting shovels in the ground," Millerick said. "The financing is in place and it is a nationally recognized model project for the future of mass transit."
Advocates cited a long list of busway supporters, including Aetna, Central Connecticut State University, the Central Connecticut League of Conservation Voters, Mayor Pedro Segarra and the Hartford city council, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and the Parkville and Asylum Hill neighborhood associations.
"This project is a high priority for the city, the region and the state," said Hartford council member James Boucher.
On Friday, after several hours of testimony from both sides, the General Assembly's transportation committee still appeared divided.
State Rep. Timothy D. Larson, D- East Hartford, and Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, both endorsed the busway, but Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, and Rep. Steven Mikutel, D-Griswold, remained skeptical.
"This costs $61 million a mile? In an era of scarce resources, that's a lot of money to spend," Mikutel said.
Molly McKay, a spokeswoman for the Connecticut Sierra Club, agreed and emphasized that part of Connecticut's share of the cost would come from its regular federal aid for highway maintenance.
"If we steal that money as our share of the busway, it comes from highway maintenance," she said.
She and other busway opponents are backing a bill by Sen. Jason Welch, D-Bristol, to use busway funding toward creating train service on the same 9.6-mile corridor being considered for the busway and then continuing it to Waterbury.
Michael Nicastro of the Greater Bristol Chamber of Commerce announced informational meetings about the busway funding at 6 p.m. Feb. 28 and March 2 at the chamber's office.
"If this goes through, we won't have rail in Bristol. You can't do both," Nicastro said. "The restoration of rail from Waterbury to Hartford is critical." He called the busway funding plan "a house of cards."
Millerick disagreed, saying: "It has passed all of the tests for viability, need and financing. To claim otherwise is disingenuous, at best."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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