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Private Sector Would Quickly Pull The Plug On Busway Boondoggle


October 18, 2011

Contrary to the fashionable thought du jour, the majority of businesses in this country are good, honorable and well-run entities that take their fiduciary duty seriously. If only government did the same.

So indulge me as I (by analogy) turn the state and all of the players in the New Britain-to-Hartford busway saga into a private entity that wants to launch a new product the busway.

First let's lay out the roles.

At the state level the governor would be the CEO and the General Assembly the board of directors. The state Department of Transportation is the product management team handling design, development and launch of the product. The municipalities of Hartford, West Hartford, Newington and New Britain are the targeted customers and Connecticut taxpayers are the shareholders.

On the federal level, the U.S. is a venture capital firm with the president as the CEO and Congress as the board of directors. The secretary of the U.S. DOT and administrator of the Federal Transit Administration are the analysts for the venture capital firm and U.S. citizens are the shareholders.

Beginning in 1999 (or thereabouts), the state DOT (product management team) studied transportation alternatives and developed a bus rapid transit solution between Hartford and New Britain as the best method of alleviating congestion on I-84, at a cost of $75 million. The then CEO and board of directors (legislature) gave the go-ahead to advance the project and seek out venture capital (federal government).

The process ground along with the cost increasing every step of the way. The consultants (U.S. DOT and FTA) picked and poked at the project, the next CEO pretty much ignored the busway, and the board of directors (legislature) asked a few questions but was generally ambivalent.

At the same time, the federal board of directors (our congressional reps) became cheerleaders for the busway and lobbied the consultants (USDOT/FTA) to support the project despite its mediocre rating and low process scores. The prospective customers in Newington and West Hartford hated the plan while Hartford was lukewarm and New Britain was a rabid cheerleader. Other potential customers (Bristol, Southington, Waterbury) expressed doubts but were ignored despite being shareholders.

Now, we have yet another CEO, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who mercifully decided to finally make the "go/no go" decision on the busway.

Here's the presentation by product management (the state DOT):

The busway will operate for 9.4 miles between Hartford and New Britain at a cost of $570 million not including the $40 million to modify the bridge at Flatbush Avenue (an absolute necessity) or $1.5 million in grants for transit-oriented development studies in Hartford and New Britain.

Projected daily additional bus "boardings" at the beginning (the fiscal year ending in June 2015) are 2,400 with an annual operating deficit of $12.5 million. This is projected to grow to 4,900 daily "boardings" by 2030 and an annual operating deficit of $22.06 million. In addition, the project will create a number of temporary construction jobs and 100 permanent jobs.

Now if this were a private entity, the CEO would have nodded politely and then fired the product management team. But this is government. So instead of concern for the price and instead of consternation at the obscene and never-ending operating losses, the response is "Yahoo, let's do it" from every level. State, federal and all the bureaucracies in between think this is just great.

Maybe this is just history repeating itself. Charles Mann in his book, "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus," speaks of the rulers of the Inca nation and how they would make up public works projects as inane as moving dirt from one pile to another just to keep the natives busy. The parallels are amazing.

In fact isn't this is exactly what we're doing with the busway? A transit project that took too long to materialize and is no longer valid is now a jobs bill. There are alternatives. Maybe we should just build some pyramids. The result would be the same and we would save $22 million a year. How's that for fiduciary duty?

Michael D. Nicastro is president and CEO of the Central Connecticut Chambers of Commerce.

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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