Busway Plan Survives Senate Republicans' Effort To De-Fund Project
By CHRISTOPHER KEATING
April 27, 2012
HARTFORD — State senators paved the way for the controversial New Britain-to-Hartford busway Thursday after a sharp debate over whether the project is a brilliant transportation advance or a potentially costly white elephant.
After nearly four hours of debate, the Senate voted 19-15 to reject a Republican de-funding amendment. The Senate also voted 22-14 in favor of permitting electronic tolls on Route 11 in southeastern Connecticut in order to pay for the extension of the highway from Salem to I-95 at the border of East Lyme and Waterford.
The 9.4-mile busway has been pushed by Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloyas a job-creator that would relieve highway congestion, but it has been blasted by Republicans as a wasteful boondoggle, a heavily subsidized government project, and an ill-conceived road to nowhere.
The buses would run on a bus-only roadway from downtown New Britain through Newington and West Hartford, before ending at Union Station in Hartford. Supporters say it will cost relatively little for the state at $112 million because 80 percent of the $567 million total cost will be paid by the federal government. Overall, it will cost about $60 million per mile.
An official groundbreaking is expected next month, and the long-delayed busway could begin operating in late 2014 if everything goes as planned.
"I think it's irresponsible for us, whatever the political pressures that are on us'' to spend money on the busway, said Sen. Joseph Markley, a Southington Republican who is the chief opponent. "People may say it's federal money. ... All of that money is our money.''
The debate focused on Markley's amendment to slash funding for the 11-stop busway and redistribute the money for other purposes. He said there are huge transportation needs in all areas of the state and noted that six of the seven bridges in Stamford are structurally deficient. Overall, 30 Connecticut bridges "are rated below the Minnesota bridge'' that collapsed several years ago, Markley said.
During the debate, Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney abruptly called for a time-out and a Democratic caucus as insiders were unsure whether the Democrats had enough votes to defeat Markley's amendment. But Democrats were assured in the caucus that they had the votes, and the debate resumed more than an hour later.
The vote was relatively close, with two Democrats absent and Democrat Paul Doyle of Wethersfield joining Republicans against the busway.
The debate on the amendment lasted through much of the day because it was interrupted by the caucus and visits by three University of Connecticut sports teams on the annual Husky Day at the Capitol. A key Democrat said he felt that the issue had been hijacked because the underlying bill focused on Route 11 and not the busway.
The busway would generate an estimated 900 construction jobs for the workers who would build it over three years. The estimated subsidy for operating costs is $12 million per year, and after 10 years that total would rise to an annual subsidy of about $22 million, Markley said. About 100 jobs would be created to operate the buses. The $567 million cost includes $300 million to build the busway, plus the costs of purchasing the buses and building the bus stations.
Nearly $90 million has already been spent on land acquisition for the planned route. Six major contracts have already been signed, and construction is expected to begin soon.
Proponents say the buses will provide 16,000 daily rides — meaning 8,000 people making round trips between the two cities. But the opponents are highly skeptical of the ridership projections.
Democrats strongly defended the project, saying it would have ancillary benefits that would spill over into different towns along the way. Sen.Theresa B. Gerratana, a New Britain Democrat, said there are plans for a $35 million mixed-use development near the busway in her hometown.
"This is indeed what I believe is the future of our region, the future for our children,'' she said. "If you drive I-84 every morning to Hartford, as I do, you see the congestion and the pollution.''
But Senate Republican leader John McKinney of Fairfield said that traffic congestion is far worse in lower Fairfield County, adding that the busway would not even be on his list of the Top 10 needed projects statewide.
The well-documented congestion on I-95 "makes the traffic on I-84 look like a walk in the park,'' he said. "The issue is: Is this the right priority for spending in Connecticut?''
Currently, there is bus service between New Britain and Hartford, and it costs $1.25 for a round-trip ride. The current 11,000 rides daily are projected to increase to 16,000 rides per day. The buses would be running 21 hours a day, from 4:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m.
"We have a chance here to move ahead, to show some vision,'' said Sen. Gary LeBeau, an East Hartford Democrat. "The density will grow around the rail line. ... It's a bargain. It is time for us to get this job done.''
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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