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Whoa On Busway: Project Would Block Rail, A Better Option

Molly McKay

March 20, 2011

Restoring commuter rail service between Waterbury, Bristol and Hartford would be very important to the future economy of Connecticut, but it won't happen if the proposed New Britain-to-Hartford busway is approved.

Because the railroad right-of-way already exists, this project can be done for a fraction of the $600 million the state Department of Transportation estimates will be spent on the busway. For example, a similar rail restoration project underway in Massachusetts and Vermont to rebuild 49 miles of rail is costing $75 million, or $1.5 million per mile. Compare that to $63 million a mile for the busway. And the DOT's estimates are always low.

If the busway is built, the rail line is dead. Because the busway requires a wide right-of-way, as highways always do, it would obliterate a part of the right-of-way needed for rail service. For years, the voters and town officials were misled about this fact. DOT officials said there would be room for both, until they were forced publicly to correct the record.

The restored rail line will not in any way prevent New Britain-to-Hartford bus service indeed, the current service on existing roads carries 11,000 people a day. The restored rail line, which would collect riders from Waterbury, Terryville, Bristol, Plainville, New Britain, Newington, West Hartford and Hartford, would have the potential to accommodate many thousands more riders and to take thousands more cars off of I-84. With additional rail connections going south through Waterbury to the shoreline and north through Hartford to Massachusetts and Vermont, ridership could go way beyond those numbers.

A new report from Amtrak raises an even bigger problem. The federal government is looking seriously at a new true high-speed rail alignment that would pass through Waterbury and head across central Connecticut along the part of the route still largely in place of the old "Air Line," which was the fastest rail line from Boston to New York in the 1890s. The Waterbury-to-Hartford rail line could be part of that service. Let's not endanger that opportunity of a lifetime in favor of a $600 million busway whose ridership needs can be completely, and far more cheaply, met by restoring rail service.

Make no mistake: We need rail and expanded bus service in New England, and we can do both here in Connecticut. But we cannot do so by building a busway that blocks rail, when we can very easily have bus service that complements rail, and vice versa.

Proponents say they have labored many years to get this busway built, and that is true. But one of the key claims their adherents formerly made, until we caught them, was that rail had already been "studied" for this line, and the bus was "favored." The study only went as far as Plainville, and did not consider Waterbury-to-Hartford rail.

Finally, those who would build the busway claim the state would lose timely access to federal funds if we switched our support to a rail project. That is false. Federal Transit Administration chief Peter Rogoff said in a letter to U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-East Hartford, last year that we at the local level can choose the mode we see as working best for us.

Anyone who testifies about the busway should do so under oath. Then we will get less smoke and mirrors about this benighted, overpriced project, and instead switch to a real solution to the transportation needs of this state, which is the restoration of the functioning rail system that we once had, but that was destroyed by the highway lobby during the past 50 years.

Molly McKay is the transportation chairwoman of the Connecticut Sierra Club.

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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