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Busway Friends And Foes Take Stances On $200 Million In Federal Funds

DON STACOM

April 04, 2010

If the Federal Transit Administration pledges more than $200 million this spring for the proposed New Britain to Hartford busway, the project's supporters say they're confident they'll have the momentum to get it built and operating by late 2013.

Opponents, though, figure federal funding would give them one more shot at blocking the long-planned busway. That's because both sides acknowledge the dispute could ultimately end in the hands of the State Bond Commission, where bruising political battles have become commonplace.

Busway advocates launched the public relations part of their campaign last week with a small rally outside the Legislative Office Building, where House Speaker Chris Donovan, D-Meriden, declared he's in favor of the project. Mass transit lobbyists described it as a way to create construction jobs, help low-income workers commute to their jobs, reduce highway traffic and protect the environment.

Within hours, the opposition put out a rebuttal.

"It is simply amazing that anyone would try to defend the expenditure of nearly $600 million for what amounts to a 9-mile HOV lane for buses," said Michael Nicastro, president of the Greater Bristol Chamber of Commerce. "The cost is not justifiable."

A dozen years after the state transportation department put forward the busway plan, the Federal Transit Administration appears on the verge of committing massive federal funding for it. More than $100 million in other federal money has already been budgeted for the busway, and as early as next month the transit administration will decide on Connecticut's request for better than $200 million more under the federal New Starts program. Initial signals have been positive.

"We're right at the moment when the busway project is about to happen," state Rep. Tim O'Brien, D-New Britain, said. "It's an opportunity for New Britain to become a center for transit-oriented development."

The New Starts money would be the next-to-last piece of the DOT's complex funding formula for the busway, which is projected to cost $572 million. Connecticut has already borrowed or authorized more than $60 million; if the transit administration awards the New Starts grant, the state would have to come up with as much as $50 million more to in matching funds.

Busway opponents mostly legislators from Bristol, West Hartford and Plainville predict taxpayers will be furious if the deficit-plagued state government tries to borrow that much in this recession. They say Connecticut's congressional delegation should push the transit administration to divert busway funding to creating a commuter rail line along the identical Hartford-to-New Britain route, then extending it to Waterbury.

Advocates predict the final cost to state taxpayers could be significantly less; the severe downturn in the construction industry will drive actual costs below estimates, they say. Transportation Commissioner Joseph Marie has also warned that if the busway plan is halted, Connecticut would have to repay nearly $50 million in federal money that has already been spent on engineering studies, designs and consultants' fees. He and U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, also insist there's no way to divert transit administration funding to a rail project that hasn't even begun preliminary studies, let alone advanced design work.

Transit lobbyists say it would be foolish to sacrifice hundreds of millions in federal aid after so many years of work.

"There are 4,000 jobs and 15,000 riders a day waiting on this project," said Karen Burnaska, coordinator of the Transit for Connecticut advocacy group.

If the transit administration money comes through, the "matching funds" argument could wind up with the State Bond Commission, which authorizes all major borrowing. Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a busway supporter, chairs the commission. In recent months, though, the Democratic majority has rejected many of her initiatives.

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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