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Get Moving On Busway Preparations

Tom Condon

June 12, 2011

The proposed Hartford-New Britain Busway has become such a punching bag that even disgraced former Gov. John Rowland has been bashing it. That is inappropriate for many reasons, not the least of which is that the project was developed by his administration. And, not for the first time, he's wrong.

Unfortunately, some people seem to buying the message, from Rowland and others, that the busway is an expensive boondoggle, a bridge to nowhere. It will be no such thing, if the state and towns get busy and use it as the centerpiece for smart growth. But they've got to get moving.

Getting people out of cars whenever possible shouldn't be the fanciful notion of a few enviros, it ought to be hard-nosed public policy. The world energy crisis looks more and more intractable. The easy-to-extract oil, coal and natural gas are quickly drying up (and shale gas does not qualify as easy to extract). The Fukushima disaster has pushed some countries away from nuclear power, which will put more pressure on fossil fuels. If the "Arab Spring" movement gains a footing in Saudi Arabia, today's gas prices are going to look like something out of "American Graffiti" very soon.

So we need cities that use less energy connected by fixed-path transit that uses less energy. So imagine the 9.4-mile New Britain- Hartford busway developing into a hub-and-spoke system with busways on the HOV lanes coming from the north and east, plus the commuter rail line running north-south. If all modes lead to Hartford, Hartford should thrive, and so should all of the spokes. If we get this right.

Transit needs density. So the idea would be to promote housing and business around the busway stops and terminals. At the very least, this requires a package of zoning changes, developer incentives and parking accommodation. It may require more than that.

When the Bay Area Rapid Transit system opened in the San Francisco area in the 1970s, planners hoped it would cause the construction of mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented districts around the stations. It mostly didn't happen; highway-oriented sprawl continued apace. The legislature may want to do something stronger here, both to protect its investment and to create a suburban form that is more sustainable.

Of the four communities on the busway, the one furthest along at exploiting the busway for mixed-use development is New Britain. Mayor Tim Stewart said his city has made zoning changes to spur development, is redoing the downtown streetscape, refurbishing a parking garage, building a new police station and looking at other improvements.

Stewart said one downtown project, the restoration of the long-vacant New Britain National Bank building into a 38,500-square-foot mixed-use building called Anvil Place, has just been completed, and that developers are interested in more such projects.

Downtown New Britain has good bones. The busway - let us hope - could be the push that triggers a renaissance. The other towns need to follow suit, as does the business community and the state Department of Transportation. The DOT isn't doing much beyond applying for the last of the federal funds, expected this summer. The thought is to crank it up when the money comes through. Why wait?

The busway is expected to open in 2014. There needs to be transit-oriented development in the pipeline, and it won't happen by itself. Also, the department needs to start selling the project.

Bus rapid transit works in cities such as Pittsburgh, Ottawa and Cleveland, among an increasing number of others, but most people here aren't familiar with it. They think of buses as the blue-and-whites that stop at every corner and every streetlight. Nothing against them - I'm a semi-regular user and this would be a good time to upgrade city buses as well - but BRT is a different animal. It will feature high-quality, state-of-the-art buses that look like train cars and run on their own roadway.

Phone apps and LED signs will tell you when the next bus will arrive. Buses will no longer be held back by car traffic, so you'll get into Hartford faster than you would by inching along I-84. DOT has to start getting the message out, selling the idea. There ought to be a sign at every stop that says "Coming Soon' and explains the project. C'mon - marketing, momentum, excitement.

We can allow this to fail or we can make it succeed. Gov. Dannel Malloy was right to push ahead with it, because - with some imagination - it can be part of the structure of smart growth in the Capital region. But we need to work at it. "If you build it, they will come" only happens in the movies.

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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