The long-delayed busway project won a critical vote Friday when the State Bond Commission authorized $90 million to help build it, leaving just one major hurdle before construction contracts can be signed.
Brushing aside criticism that the $569 million New Britain-to-Hartford busway was too expensive, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and most Democrats on the commission approved borrowing to pay for Connecticut's share of the cost.
The highway dedicated to rapid-transit buses could be built and operating by August 2014 if federal officials come through with a crucial $275 million funding package before midsummer, state transportation officials said. Malloy said he was confident that Congress would come across with the money, declaring: "We've received assurances this is funded."
The DOT wants to award construction bids sometime between June 1 and Aug. 1, but it needs the federal commitment before signing contracts.
Advocates portray the 9.6-mile busway as an answer to rush-hour gridlock along I-84, projecting that it will attract 15,000 riders a day. They praised Malloy for supporting the controversial project, and said it would get thousands of cars off the highway, reducing daily commutes and cutting back on pollution and carbon emissions.
"The release of these funds means that we will finally be able to commence construction on this project that has been more than a decade in the waiting," said Karen Burnaska, coordinator of the Transit for Connecticut Coalition. "But more importantly, it means that we will be able to put thousands of people back to work, helping to stimulate our economy in ways that are greatly needed."
Lyle Wray, executive director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments, said the busway was "state of the art" for a medium-density region like central Connecticut.
"With service every 5 to 10 minutes, the project will be Connecticut's first true rapid-transit system and will relieve congestion on the region's busiest highway section," he said.
Critics predict that the busway will turn out to be a white elephant, and complain that it's soaking up money that's badly needed for highway paving, bridge repairs and existing mass transit.
To illustrate the expense, Sen. Andrew Roraback said that Connecticut could buy 28,350 Jeep Patriots for the same price, enough to give one to every man, woman and child in his district town of New Milford.
Analyzed another way, he said, the busway budget works out to $60 million a mile, or about $11,000 a foot.
Roraback and Rep. Sean Williams said they have been flooded with calls from taxpayers who don't want the busway.
"These are thoughtful people who understand our credit card is maxxed out," Williams said.
In recent years, the busway has created an improbable series of political rifts and alliances. On Friday, Williams and Roraback — both Republicans — sided with Democratic Sen. Eileen Daily in voting "no." The seven other Democrats on the bond commission voted "yes."
Leaders in Hartford and New Britain have eagerly endorsed the busway, but their counterparts in Newington and Bristol have both opposed it.
Republican legislators, including Sen. Jason Welch of Bristol, have attacked the busway as too costly, but conservative Republican Mayor Timothy Stewart of New Britain has been one of its most outspoken advocates.
Former Sen. Donald DeFronzo of New Britain, a Democrat widely respected for a deep understanding of transportation policy, initially was a supporter, but later concluded that the cost had gotten out of hand. Rep. Tim O'Brien, usually DeFronzo's political ally, joined Stewart — a long-time adversary — in campaigning for the busway.
Malloy acknowledged that the project has been controversial, but said Friday: "It's worth the money. It's an important project."
Separately, the State Bond Commission approved $1 million to study restoring commuter train service between Waterbury and Hartford. The busway will take up the best corridor for that service, but business leaders from Bristol, Plainville and Plymouth want to study the case for using a somewhat longer alternate route.
Their plan is to link Metro-North service, which ends in Waterbury, with the state Capitol, creating a convenient rail route between Greater Hartford and Manhattan.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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