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After 13 Years Of Planning Busway Looking Like 'Done Deal'

Don Stacom

November 18, 2011

After 13 years of consultants' studies, engineering reports, designs and redesigns, the busway is just about ready to roll.

The federal government is poised to commit $275 million on Monday, nearly assuring that Connecticut can build the bus-only highway linking the downtowns of New Britain and Hartford.

"It's a milestone. We still have a lot of work, and we're a long way from cutting the ribbon," said Lyle Wray, executive director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments and one of the busway's chief proponents.

State transportation officials promise construction will create hundreds of jobs and that a high-frequency schedule of stylish, contemporary express buses will lure commuters away from congested I-84.

Peter Rogoff, administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, is scheduled to visit the city Monday to announce that the busway project is officially guaranteed $275 million in new federal aid. The busway has been under consideration for funding under the FTA New Starts program for years, and cleared final Congressional review last week.

"We're looking at major ground-breaking probably in March," said Michael Sanders, the DOT manager who has shepherded the project through the notoriously long engineering, financial and design reviews that are required for New Starts money.

Design details have changed over the years, but the latest estimate is that the state and federal governments will spend $567 million to build a 9.4-mile bus-only highway from New Britain to Hartford's Union Station. Much of the route runs alongside Amtrak's north-south rail line, and part will pave over an unused Conrail freight link between New Britain and Newington.

The DOT projects that the multiyear construction will create more than 940 temporary jobs, and that the bus operation and related services will generate 100 permanent jobs when it opens in early 2015. It projects that buses on the route will carry 16,000 riders a day, including 5,000 who'd previously been driving to work.

Opponents have argued that it's vastly overpriced and that ridership estimates are inflated, but despite several years of campaigning they failed to block the crucial FTA funding.

"It's a mistake. Wrong is just wrong, and I don't see how we can afford this when we need so much money for highway and bridge repairs," said state Rep. Whit Betts, R-Bristol, who traveled to Washington, D.C. to try to rally Republican Congressmen to block it. "But it's beginning to look like it's a done deal."

The DOT still needs a wetlands permit from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, but supporters and detractors alike have agreed that the New Starts funding decision would be the real make-or-break point for the project. The FTA endorsed the busway two months ago, leaving the two-month-long Congressional review period as the last real opportunity for opponents to block it.

On the same week that the Congressional review deadline passed, the DOT opened bids from several contractors for the first phase of work: The stretch in downtown New Britain. The lowest offers were about 20 percent less than the projected $35 million.

Over the next few weeks, the DOT will open bids for two other sections, including the complex and costly stretch in Hartford and West Hartford.

While part of the DOT staff focuses on grading and paving, others will continue working on creating a brand for the service. The new bus rapid transit system will be unlike CT Transit's local or express service, offering much higher-frequency schedules especially at rush hour on modern, articulated buses. There will be more attention to amenities, stylish design and a logo tying together the fleet and the busway stations, all as part of attracting more affluent business riders.

Wray said the busway is the first and most expensive component of a bigger-scale mass transit network that would help spur development in central Connecticut. A system of rapid transit buses running north and east of Hartford perhaps using the high-occupancy vehicle lanes of I-84 and I-81 would be logical extensions for the future, he said.

"That's where you really begin to transform a region," he said.

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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