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Busway: Serious Rapid Transit


December 26, 2010

Boston has its T, Washington has its Metro, and Hartford can and should join their ranks with a high-speed regional transit system of its own, namely the proposed New Britain-Hartford Busway. Just like a big city subway, it would offer high speeds, frequent, reliable service and a powerful incentive for economic development along its path.

This isn't some long-range dream we can have the busway under construction this spring if we commit state bonding to finance it. That's no sure thing, due to the skepticism of some state legislators and Gov.-elect Dan Malloy.

The truth is, we were skeptical, too until we looked at the plans.

Put the word "bus" in anything, and most people think slow and boring. But this is bus rapid transit. Adding the words rapid transit makes all the difference. Bus rapid transit is innovative, comfortable and clean technology. It creates investment in neighborhoods and it would tie the region's communities more closely together, just like subways do elsewhere.

The system has high-capacity lines, just like rail. There would be stations in two city centers, Hartford and New Britain, with their concentrations of jobs, housing and commerce, and other important intermediate stations. There's a proposed Central Connecticut State University station for the people working and studying there, and one at Newington Junction where riders could switch to the proposed new commuter rail for travel to New Haven, Fairfield County or New York. Commuters could park-and-ride there too, just like at Alewife on the Boston T's Red Line.

And notice we said lines, plural. Our area's secret weapon is that we have already built two other "tracks" the carpool lanes on I-91 north and I-84 east. That means our system can grow faster and cheaper than in almost any other city because we could extend it without needing new rights-of-way.

Bus rapid transit systems have already proved successful in Canada, Europe and South America. We would be among the first U.S. cities to have a real one, as opposed to a divided lane on a regular street.

The buses themselves would be innovative, too. Most rapid transit vehicles run on electricity think third rails and coal-fired powered plants. The busway vehicles could run on natural gas, hydrogen fuel cells, diesel or a hybrid of diesel and electric. And because each vehicle operates independently, we could use a variety of fuels, adjusting the mix to our advantage as prices fluctuate and technology changes.

Also, capital costs would be lower than rail, because bus fleets are less expensive than train cars there are no complex electrical systems, as on Metro North, and no rail yards to maintain. The vehicles are standardized and made by several manufacturers, meaning there's competition to keep prices in check.

Most important, bus rapid transit, also called BRT, spurs investment in neighborhoods. Transit systems with a dedicated right-of-way, like tracks or busways, attract more private investment than regular city bus service because they're more permanent.

"Walk to Kenmore T" carries real weight in Boston real estate listings. Soon homeowners in West Hartford could be writing "walk to Elmwood BRT." Just as a Boston restaurant writes "T: Haymarket" in its ad, soon Park Street restaurants could be saying "BRT: Parkville." Elmwood and Parkville are already emerging as desirable districts for shopping, dining and living. The busway could be the catalyst for making them fully bloom.

The New Britain-Hartford Busway would give Connecticut's capital region a true metro system, and it could happen soon. We urge everyone in Connecticut, and especially Gov.-elect Malloy, to take a new look at the plans and move ahead. Don't think busway equals city bus. Think bus rapid transit equals Boston's T or Washington's Metro, and you'll realize what we stand to gain.

Christiaan Hogendorn is associate professor of economics at Wesleyan University. Joyce Jacobsen is Wesleyan's Andrews Professor of Economics.

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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