August 7, 2005
By STEPHANIE REITZ, Courant Staff Writer
State transportation officials are racing an Aug. 15 deadline
to reverse the federal government's doubts about the proposed
busway that would link New Britain and Hartford.
Millions of federal dollars have been promised to Connecticut
for the busway if it is launched, but the state Department of
Transportation cannot apply for a penny of it without regaining
the Federal Transit Administration's confidence in the project.
"We've had some high-level discussions with them, and we believe
that the [Aug. 15] submittal will be satisfactory to them," said
James Boice, chief of the DOT's bureau of policy and planning.
"The project might seem to have languished, but important
progress has been made," he said. "It's just the kind
of progress that's not visible to the public quite yet."
The project, a bus-only route running 9.6 miles between New
Britain and Hartford, would launch in 2011 if all remains on
schedule, state officials said. One key portion of that schedule:
regaining the federal government's faith in Connecticut's ability
to deliver what it promises.
Earlier this year, the FTA
downgraded the $335 million project from "recommended" status to "not
Federal officials expressed concerns about increases in the
project's costs; lackluster progress in hitting certain milestones,
such as securing rights of way along the route; and whether Connecticut
has the financial capability and commitment to follow through
with the project.
The busway proposal is part of a federal program called New
Starts. Transit projects compete against each other for the right
to seek federal money.
States and transit agencies
are re-evaluated every year to determine their progress. If
their project receives a "not recommended" rating
one year, however, they can keep their spot in the New Starts
program by addressing the problems in the following year.
Velvet Snow, a spokeswoman
for the FTA, said the agency will review the information that
Connecticut submits this month, then report in early 2007 to
Congress about whether the busway should return to "recommended" status.
State and regional transportation officials said they are confident
that the question of the state's commitment and finances can
be easily answered, especially in light of Gov. M. Jodi Rell's
new $1.3 billion transportation improvements package.
They say the package, which includes multimillion-dollar investments
in new rail cars and buses, shows that Connecticut is serious
about improving mass transit.
Equally important, they said, it takes pressure off the state's
transportation operating funds because the improvements will
be financed by selling bonds and increasing the tax on profits
from the sale of petroleum products.
The more complicated questions involve reaching a deal with
Amtrak to let the state run part of the busway on Amtrak property
parallel to its tracks and designing a plan for squeezing the
bus-only lanes into the tight spaces in downtown Hartford without
forcing passengers to cross busy streets or train tracks.
Those design and right-of-way issues all affect whether the
state can keep the projected cost stable at $337 million or whether
it might increase again.
The federal government recently
authorized $55 million to be spent over several years for the
busway if it is launched. However, the state can apply for
that money only if it meets several requirements, including
getting back on the "recommended" list.
Much of the current costs
for planning and designing the busway are being financed from
a separate funding source: almost $27 million in "earmarks," or
special grants, that the state's congressional delegation has
set aside during the past few years from the mass-transit portion
of federal transportation bills.
The state has set aside $6.7 million in matching money, or 25
percent of the federal total. An additional $5 million in federally
earmarked money was added last week.
Although the earmarked money is similar to a bank account from
which the state can withdraw money, the $55 million authorization
is similar to a parent's promise to someday fund a child's college
education if the student is accepted.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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