The deal is done, most of the contracts are let, the construction is under way — and some politicians are still bashing the New Britain-to- Hartford busway. This potentially transformative project has become a punching bag for some of the candidates in the coming congressional primaries.
Is somebody going to fight back, take the opposing view, point out that this could do a lot of good for Greater Hartford and beyond? Construction will be completed in two years, with service to begin shortly thereafter, in early 2015. The state Department of Transportation needs to start selling this idea, before the public assumes the critics are right and forgets about it. What the DOT needs is a Bill Veeck.
The great baseball promoter himself is not available, having gone to the upper deck in 1986, but the agency needs someone with his imagination, drive and sass to sell the product.
This occurred to me as I finished baseball historian Paul Dickson's new biography, "Bill Veeck — Baseball's Greatest Maverick" (Walker). The book is wonderful; if you have any interest in baseball or marketing, scoop it up. Veeck was a piece of work, a multi-faceted man who endured leg amputations connected to wartime injuries, reviewed books and, incidentally, integrated the American League when he signed Larry Doby to the Cleveland Indians in 1947.
But for our purposes today, let's focus on Veeck the salesman.
He's probably best remembered as the guy who sent a midget, the 3-foot, 7-inch Eddie Gaedel, up to bat for the St. Louis Browns in 1951.
But that was one of countless creative promotions Veeck used to drum up interest in his teams and the national pastime. He created the exploding scoreboard, put names on the back of uniforms, gave orchids to female fans. He had a fruit and vegetable night. Once he let a group of fans manage a game.
In short, Veeck was a peerless promoter and salesman. His ideas didn't always work (see: Disco Demolition Night), but they usually did. He drew some of the biggest crowds in baseball history. Yes, transit is a different product, but a great salesman can sell anything, as long as the product is useful or entertaining.
Transit is useful, and the DOT needs to get the message out. So far the agency has only done a little groundwork, such as changing the name of the busway to CTfastrak.
I hope they didn't blow a lot of money on the name because I don't think it's going to catch on. Typing two upper-case letters followed by seven lower-case italic letters is more work than I want to do, and I suspect I'm not alone.
How would Bill Veeck promote the busway? According to a recent government report, there are now more than 120 cities around the world with bus rapid transit systems carrying more than 27 million passengers a day. He might gather some potential riders and visit one of these cities — Cleveland, Kansas City, Los Angeles. See if people like to ride the buses, and if the transit system is spurring economic development.
I think Veeck would stop promoting the busway as just a 9.4-mile dedicated roadway and start promoting it as what it really is — the centerpiece of a regional system. Commuters from Farmington, Waterbury and Bristol will use the busway to get into Hartford. When it opens, the DOT plans to start bus rapid transit on the HOV lanes from the north and east.
Veeck would find a way to promote the idea that transit saves fuel, cuts pollution and makes the highways work better, because he'd be aware of the growing green consciousness out there.
He'd put up signs and throw parties at the station sites, so people know where they are and that the buses are coming. When the service starts, he'd have breakfasts on the bus, Dunkin' Donuts Day, CCSU Day, whatever, to build ridership. I think he'd have a book or iPad giveaway — to get across the idea that instead of fighting traffic you can read and relax on the bus.
Today's young people are not as enamored of driving as we of the boomer years were. They are potential busway riders. Bill Veeck would find a way to reach them.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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