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Green-Light The Busway

The Hartford Courant

March 20, 2011

In the two decades after World War II, when gas and cars were cheap, Connecticut went on a highway-building binge that all but obliterated other modes of ground transportation. Things have changed.

Gas is approaching $4 a gallon, oil is getting more dangerous to extract and we are dependent for much of it on foreign suppliers of uncertain fealty to Uncle Sam. Driving is a major culprit in climate change, most scientists believe. Traffic congestion cost the country, by one estimate, $115 billion in 2009.

A transportation system based overwhelmingly on individuals driving their own cars is a luxury we can no longer afford. Connecticut desperately needs a more balanced and less wasteful set of mobility options. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy can take a major step in this direction by giving the New Britain-Hartford busway the green light.

The project, in the works for 13 years, would create a 9.4-mile bus-only roadway between the two cities, with stops in Newington and West Hartford. It is projected to carry 16,300 riders per weekday, and would run on an abandoned railroad right-of-way from New Britain to Newington and then along the Amtrak main line into Hartford.

The project had no serious opposition until last year, when the Greater Bristol Chamber of Commerce mounted a campaign against it. The chamber, backed by a few environmentalists, wants to revive rail service on the long-abandoned Waterbury-Bristol-New Britain-Hartford line, which includes the New Britain to Newington segment.

The last major piece of federal funding for the busway, $266 million from the Federal Transit Administration, is in the pipeline, awaiting approval by the agency and Congress. Before moving ahead, the FTA wants assurance from Mr. Malloy that the project has state support. After he took office, Mr. Malloy said he would get supporters and opponents in a room, hear their best arguments and then make a decision. That meeting is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Monday.

Start Over?

It would be wonderful if all of the state's cities were connected by rail, as they once were, but such a network cannot be wished into existence. There's a much stronger argument for a busway that can open in three years than for a rail service that may or may not happen much further into the future.

The busway's opponents seem to think the project can be switched from bus to rail without skipping a beat. They base this on a Jan. 29, 2010, letter from Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff to U.S. Rep. John Larson which indeed says that if local leaders "wish to redefine the project as heavy rail rather than as a busway, they may do so." However, the letter goes on to say that such a change "would require additional planning and design work as well as additional environmental review." Once that is complete, the project would have to gain FTA approval again.

The project essentially would have to start over, with years more work and no guarantee it would be approved. And if it were approved, there's no guarantee that state funding would be available. The state Department of Transportation sets priorities for rail funding, and those priorities now are the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line, the shoreline and the three active branch lines.

Opponents also say the busway might block a future Amtrak plan to run a new high-speed rail line not the regional high-speed service now envisioned on existing lines through the state. That is little more than an idea at this point; it appears on a 30-year conceptual plan. It's hard to believe the busway would block it, if it ever happens.

There is also a serious question of how much demand there is for Waterbury-Bristol-Hartford train service and how many trains a day could be justified. Buses are cheaper to operate, and so could provide not only more frequent service from New Britain, but also from Bristol, because feeder buses from places west of New Britain will also use the busway.

That said, there is a viable rail option for Bristol, according to the Regional Plan Association, which supports the busway. The RPA says that using the rail line from Bristol to New Britain and then to Berlin creates a shorter trip to New Haven than going via Waterbury, and also would provide a connection to Hartford.

We tend to think of buses in terms of local blue-and-whites that are hemmed in by local traffic as they stop at (almost) every corner. Bus rapid transit, with sleek, articulated buses moving on their own road, is a different animal, and is gaining popularity in many U.S. cities and around the world. There's no reason it can't work here.

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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