BRISTOL — - Advocates of restoring passenger rail service from Waterbury to Hartford say the idea deserves a fresh look because new questions are arising about a competing mass transit project, the New Britain busway.
Lawmakers and business leaders from Bristol and surrounding towns argue that rebuilding the dilapidated freight rail line would benefit all of central Connecticut in ways that the New Britain-to-Hartford busway could not. They say there's little public support for the busway, which is currently estimated to cost about $570 million and wouldn't open until the very end of 2013 at the earliest.
Busway supporters insist that the state should make their project a top priority. After years of studies and engineering, it appears to be on the verge of landing $456 million in competitive federal funding.
Abandoning the project now would send Connecticut to the back of the line for federal transit aid and kill the state's best chance to ease I-84 congestion while simultaneously spurring development in downtown New Britain and other communities along the route.
Either way, Connecticut is drawing closer to deciding whether to build the busway. To get a shot at the $456 million in federal money next year, it must commit within the next few weeks to coming up with another $64 million in state funds, probably through long-term borrowing.
Busway opponents say that may be too much, especially on top of $50 million in state money already set aside for the project.
The state transportation department is trying to push the project forward in these next critical weeks. Transportation Commissioner Joseph Marie says it appears to be near the top of the list for funding from Washington next year.
"I'm told this could be the only project awarded [extensive federal funding] in 2010. That's what our federal partners are saying, that's how excited they are about this project," Marie told state lawmakers this month.
But Sen. Donald DeFronzo, a New Britain Democrat who is co-chairman of the transportation committee, said he's heard nothing from Gov. M. Jodi Rell to indicate that the busway merits top consideration for the state's limited pool of mass transit funds. And if the decision gets pushed into late next year, he noted, there will be a new governor, one who might not share Marie's enthusiasm for the busway.
Rep. David McCluskey, D-West Hartford, is even more skeptical about it. Compared to a busway of similar length in Cleveland, Connecticut's seems exceptionally expensive, he said.
"How do I justify spending double the amount of money and have almost a third less stations [than the Cleveland system]?" McCluskey asked.
Lyle Wray, director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments, stressed that the busway is a priority for central Connecticut as a way to improve transportation, cut pollution and spur economic development.
Skeptics have been advocating a rail-based alternative, rehabilitating the worn freight tracks from Waterbury to New Britain, then restoring tracks on the abandoned right of way from New Britain to Newington, where they'd merge with Amtrak's main line into Hartford. A stretch of the busway would use that same New Britain to Newington corridor, however, so building one means doing without the other, state transit engineers have said.
Just a few months ago, opposition to the busway seemed to lose steam. Pan Am Railways, which owns the longest segment of the Waterbury-to-Hartford rail corridor, had said it could rebuild the system to accommodate passenger trains for $52 million, but has gone quiet about the whole idea for many months. Marie has shown no enthusiasm for the rail idea, and Rell has backed him.
But Rell recently said she won't be back for another term. And this month, Marie acknowledged that the federal busway funding could be problematic because Congress has stalled on approving a new long-term transportation bill. Without that, federal officials may not be able to commit to putting up their share of the money quickly.
DeFronzo said he wants the DOT to study costs for rehabilitating the rail line.
"That would ease some of the tension that exists between the communities," DeFronzo said.
State Rep. Frank Nicastro, D-Bristol, told Marie he wants the study done.
"The last thing I want to do is have sister cities butting heads," Nicastro said. "But [the busway] is roughly $60 million a mile. Are we getting our best bang for the buck? The rail line is something we have right there, it's there already."
Marie has insisted that revitalizing the Waterbury-to-New Britain tracks for commuter service would require a complete rebuild with expensive signals.
Michael Nicastro, chief of the Greater Bristol Chamber of Commerce, is trying to line up support for the rail alternative.
"I think everyone needs to step back and re-look at where we are," he said this week. "Connecticut will need to come up with another $70 million [for the busway] by my estimation. Not a very likely scenario."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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