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Shuttle Is A Star Much Too Dim

COMMENTARY by Stan Simpson
October 8, 2005

Lynn Ferrari has lived on Charter Oak Place, five blocks south of downtown Hartford, for 24 years.

In the past month, since the launch of a free downtown bus shuttle, she's patronized more city eateries "than I had in the previous year."

Mayor Mike's, Agave Grill, Morty & Ming's, Bin 228, Hot Tomato's and The Russell are just some of the beneficiaries of her frequent ridership on the Star Shuttle - a temporary transport to circulate patrons in this fledgling convention city.

"Since the shuttle started, it's like a whole new world opened up," Ferrari, 53, a Phoenix Insurance employee, said Friday. "It's just so much easier. It's a considerable distance to get to many places. Now, I can walk down to the Atheneum, pick up the shuttle, and you can go anywhere you want."

Well, not quite. The multi-colored Star, as in "Hartford's Rising ...", makes a 2.2-mile loop and stops along some of the city's key arteries - Columbus Boulevard, and Trumbull, Asylum, Allyn and Main streets.

The shuttle - a pilot program financed by the State Department of Transportation - is an example of both forward thinking and backward budget-cutting.

The legislature invested about a half-billion dollars building a convention center and parking downtown, not to mention a football stadium in East Hartford. Then, it got chintzy with the marketing budget to promote the behemoth billed as Adriaen's Landing.

Lawmakers reduced the requested budget of the Capital City Economic Development Authority, which oversees the convention center, from $6 million to $4.7 million. According to the authority, that cut compromised its plans to bring a full-time bus circulator system to Hartford, which would cost about $600,00 annually to run.

There's a convention of math teachers in town this week. No need to ask them if cutting back on the marketing budget, which amounts to 1 percent of the state's investment, was a miscalculation.

Dan Kennedy, a math teacher from Chattanooga, Tenn., arrived in town late Thursday night and found that his reservation was never recorded at the sold-out Marriott Hotel. Strikingly unflappable, considering the gaffe, Kennedy hopped onto the Star.

As he relaxed in one of its 25 seats, hoping to find a room at the Hilton Hartford, Kennedy said Hartford's shuttle reminded him of the electric trolley-like buses in his hometown.

"It's a great thing for downtown," he said. "It worked very good for Chattanooga. There is development on the riverfront and on the south side, so there was a need for that transportation."

The Star's ridership numbers are increasing as the word gets out and more people come into the city. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays are the busier days.

I rode the shuttle this week on Monday and Wednesday during the day and on Thursday night, when the Star logged about 700 rides. I've seen the bus go from totally empty to fully packed. Conventioneers, commuters and residents alike have given it a go.

A record of 871 rides was set last Friday, when a Women of Faith conference converged on Hartford.

This weekend, there is the potential for even higher numbers. An estimated 50,000 to 60,000 people are and will be in the area for UConn football, Bruce Springsteen, a jazz concert and a marathon, among other events.

The one flaw with the shuttle is that, for now, it is limited to just a certain section of downtown. There is no connection to the neighborhoods. Hartford's biggest selling point, it's worth stating again, is its ethnicity: Little Italy on Franklin Avenue; Park Street and a planned multimillion dollar Latino renaissance; and the West Indian and African American influences on the work in progress that is Albany Avenue and the north section of Main Street.

What better incentive for the neighborhoods to get their act together than a commitment to bring thousands of open-minded out-of-towners past their establishments? And what better way of making good on the promise that Adriaen's Landing would provide an economic lift for those neighborhoods.

But that's a story for another day.

Can't talk about expanding this interim bus shuttle - until you get it fully on line.

To view the Star Shuttle's route and schedule, link to www.hartford.com

Stan Simpson's column appears Wednesdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at ssimpson@courant.com.

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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