Stand near I-84 during afternoon rush hour in Hartford, a city that has been hollowed out for cars and roads. The highway will be a fuming swath of slow-moving metal, and the feeder streets will be jammed with traffic.
Do we want to keep doing this?
It is down to the wire for federal approval of a pivotal $275 million appropriation for the New Britain-to-Hartford busway. The Federal Transit Administration is expected to approve the funding soon. However, a small group of Republican legislators are making an 11th-hour effort to kill the project.
Planned For A Dozen Years
That legislators want to scrutinize a major spending project is a good thing; it's what they should do. The busway project, with a total cost of about $570 million, is expensive. Its success is not automatically assured; it is possible to put transit in the wrong places. That said, the reasons to move ahead with the busway vastly outpoint the objections. The FTA should approve the funding.
The 9.4-mile busway is a separate road for buses only. In the works since a 1998 study, it will follow a long-abandoned railroad right-of-way from New Britain to Newington Junction for 4.4 miles and then enter the Amtrak right-of-way for the remaining five miles to Hartford. Officials say the ride will be faster and more comfortable than current service, and they expect to gain 4,000 to 5,000 new riders.
Opponents say existing roads are adequate. Not if the region hopes to grow.
I-84 carries 175,000 cars a day in Hartford, way over its design capacity, making it the busiest highway in the state. If there is an accident or bad weather, the highway is horrid. The elevated portion is going to need replacement soon; it would be nice to have an alternative.
Some in Bristol want to stop the busway so a commuter rail system can be built from there to Hartford. It is very hard to believe that a rail system would be less expensive than a bus system, or that it could provide anywhere near the same level of service. The busway will have service every three to six minutes during rush hour. It's hard to envision more than one train an hour.
Density And Cost Arguments
The anti-busway folks say the region isn't dense enough to support transit. "The way our homes and businesses are spread out, only a small percentage live within walking distance of any projected bus station. We may not like it, but our world is built for cars," wrote state Sen. Joseph Markley, R-Southington, and Rep. Whit Betts, R-Bristol, the leading opponents, in a letter asking U.S. House Speaker John Boehner to kill the project.
We don't buy the density argument. Connecticut is one of the most densely settled states and supports the busiest commuter rail line in the country. Plus, the flexibility of bus rapid transit — the ability to pick up commuters in, say, Bristol and Southington and then come in to Hartford on the busway — gives it an advantage over fixed-path trains.
Cost is the strongest objection. The state Department of Transportation can be rightly criticized for inaction on the busway in the early years of the last decade, which caused the price to rise. But the cost of other possible options has also risen. Widening I-84, for example, would be six times as expensive as the busway, according to the original study. There's no reason to think that's changed.
The busway did have unanticipated expenses. No one knew Amtrak would want a service road for its vehicles, which added more than $20 million to the price tag. Some expenses also apply to the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter rail service coming in a few years. For all of that, the DOT has been moving steadily ahead, and keeping on budget, for several years.
To increase the odds for success, the state should push for transit-oriented development along the busway. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's release of $5 million in transit-oriented development planning grants last week to 11 municipalities, including Hartford and New Britain, is a good first step.
The DOT should also begin work on the next leg — bus rapid transit coming into Hartford on the HOV lane from the east. With that and the north-south commuter rail, we've got something.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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