Working to a loudly whooping crowd of construction workers, a half-dozen politicians and labor leaders took turns Thursday evening issuing high-energy proclamations that the $569 million busway to Hartford must be built -- and soon.
"This is the start, my brothers and sisters," Rep. Antonio Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, told about 150 listeners outside Central Connecticut State University. "We make this economy grow when we have jobs. We're going to get the bus rolling."
Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra declared that the busway is vital for the future of Hartford and New Britain, and Rep. Timothy O'Brien, D-New Britain, raised the stakes even higher.
"If you're against this, you're against putting 4,000 people back to work," O'Brien said, drawing cheers from workers in an industry where unemployment has been devastatingly high for the past two years.
The rally served as a warmup for busway supporters before a state Department of Transportation forum at CCSU on the controversial project. But none of it changed the minds of dozens of busway critics, who showed up at CCSU to pepper the DOT with questions about why taxpayers should spend $60 million a mile for a two-lane, bus-only highway.
Michael Sanders, a senior DOT transit official who has overseen the busway preparations for years, predicted that construction will start this year and that buses will be rolling in August 2014. He acknowledged that a long-awaited commitment of $275 million in federal New Starts aid is the key to whether the busway is built, but said "we're downright confident" that it will come through soon.
Will the tea party-influenced Congress sign off on such a costly initiative? When a skeptic raised the question, Sanders replied, "Yes, this is an expensive project and these are tough times. [But] Republicans like to cut ribbons as much as Democrats do. I don't think anybody wants to go home next November and say 'I cut transportation funding by 30 percent.' "
Sanders acknowledged that if the Federal Transit Administration and Congress won't fund it, there will be no busway. But he said federal officials are enthusiastic about this as a model project for other spots in the country to follow.
The busway would have 11 stops, including the end points in downtown New Britain and at Union Station in Hartford. It would operate from 4:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m., with weekday rush hour service at six-minute intervals. Connecticut would spend about $20 million to buy 31 stylish, articulated buses to shuttle back and forth on the route. In addition, CT Transit express buses now running between Hartford and the communities of Waterbury, Southington, Cheshire and Bristol also could use the busway. Two feeder routes would serve the Westfarms mall, the University of Connecticut Health Center and CCSU.
Critics insisted that the busway won't draw nearly enough business to measurably reduce I-84 traffic congestion, and will become a new drag on the state budget by drawing down $7 million a year in operating subsidies.
Sanders replied that the busway will cut commuting times enough to save riders a combined 5,000 hours a day. He said projections show the average speeds on I-84 during peak hours will increase 11 percent after the busway opens.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at