Busway Critic: Maine Project Shows Rail Was The Better Choice
By DON STACOM
November 11, 2012
When Amtrak trains started running the extended Downeaster route in Maine on Nov. 1, Connecticut transportation planners should have recognized the message, Michael Nicastro said.
"This was the project we said they should have done instead of the busway for a lot less money, and nobody listened," said Nicastro, president of the Bristol-based Central Connecticut Chambers of Commerce.
The state transportation department recently announced that progress on the $567 million CTfastrak busway is going well, and that New-Britain-to-Hartford service is now scheduled to begin in early 2015. Contractors have been grading land all along the 9.6-mile route since springtime, and the DOT is preparing a marketing and branding campaign to draw riders to what will be the state's first bus rapid transit system.
But Nicastro said the Downeaster route is evidence the busway was the wrong choice.
Nicastro last year led a small group of busway opponents in pitching an alternative: Rebuild an old freight line to provide passenger train service between Hartford and Waterbury, where it would connect to Metro-North's branch line.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy sided with the transportation department, which said the rail option wasn't feasible and would take years to design and build. The DOT also said scrapping the busway project would've meant sacrificing hundreds of millions in federal aid.
"We were ignored, called crazy, told it was impossible and that this project in Maine would never get done at that small a price," Nicastro said. "Yeah right. For $38 million they extended the Downeaster from Portland to Brunswick in less than 18 months. All new track, new stations, and up and running as of today. What do we get? A $600 million boondoggle that will cost another $400 million in subsidies for 9 miles to run empty buses 21 hours a day — which still won't be ready until sometime in 2015."
After endorsing the long-planned busway project, Malloy agreed to spend about $1 million studying the feasibility of restoring passenger service on Pan Am's freight line from Waterbury. It runs through Plymouth, Bristol, Plainville and New Britain, where it once branched off. The northern fork merged with Amtrak's main line in Newington and was most direct path to Hartford, but that right of way will be paved over for the busway. The southern route merges with Amtrak in Berlin.
Even though the northern route was preferable, Nicastro is still pressing for the state to restore the line along the southern route. Upgrading the tracks and grade crossings to federal standards for passenger service would create a new mass transit link from central Connecticut to New York City and help economic development in towns along the way, he said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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