The Hartford-New Britain Busway officially broke ground on May 22 with a completely new name and an ambitious plan for ridership.
After 15 years of planning and controversy, the Connecticut Department of Transportation will no longer refer to the 9.4-mile stretch of dedicated roadway as the Hartford-New Britain Busway.
Instead, it is now called CTfastrak.
"We are so excited for CTfastrak," said Mary Beth Mello, Federal Transit Administration regional administrator. "That is a name I'm going to have to get used to because I've said, 'The Busway' for so many years."
CTfastrak is part of a larger branding strategy for the Connecticut public transportation system, called CTrides. Other facets of the branding campaign including rail and transit will be unveiled at a later date, but DOT choose CTfastrak for the busway to move potential rider's mentality off the idea of just riding buses.
"The CTfastrak name was developed to conceptually describe this new type of hybrid public transportation service — the first of its kind in Connecticut," said DOT spokesman Judd Everhart. "The service will use a dedicated right of way like a train, but will be able to enter and exit to pick people up from Park and Ride lots or continue along local roads to bring people directly to employment, shopping, healthcare and other destinations.
"CTfastrak combines the fast, traffic-free service of a train with the frequent, direct-to-your-destination flexibility of a bus," Everhart said.
Today, 11,000 passengers ride on the 11 bus lines that will eventually use the busway corridor. When the project is complete in 2014, DOT predicts 16,000 passenger rides, a 45 percent increase. The projections are based on a model by the Capitol Region Council of Governments and vetted by the Federal Transit Administration.
"Those are very ambitious numbers," said Oz Griebel, president and chief executive of the MetroHartford Alliance. "It is going to be a lot of work to make sure we can meet those numbers."
Griebel said the DOT and other CTfastrak supporters like himself need to work with the employer community along the busway route so employees — the ones who now clog Interstate 84 during rush hour — find buses as an acceptable alternative.
"We are a car-oriented society … and the buses tend to have a negative connotation," Griebel said. "It is going to take a little bit more of an effort to make it happen."
From when the project was originally conceived in 1997, the New Britain-Hartford Busway itself has been surrounded by negative connotations.
Support for the $567 million busway project fluctuated over the years, as critics complained the money that could be spent elsewhere improving roads and bridges, an assertion repeated by State Sen. Joe Markley (R-Southington) after the project broke ground on May 22.
The final support for the project only came after Gov. Dannel Malloy took office in 2011 and secured Connecticut's $112 million portion of the project.
"It is high time we get it going," Malloy said. "If you think about transit-oriented development, this opens a whole new corridor."
While DOT asserts that busway never was the official name for the project, the branding as CTfastrak gives the state an opportunity to step away from a term that became associated with contention and controversy, Griebel said.
"Like a lot of these issues, the nomenclature takes over the debate," Griebel said.
Advertising executive Ira Yellen, CEO of Glastonbury firm First Experience Communications, said getting rid of the busway name entirely might not be the best move. Ultimately, people need to view the route as public transportation and CTfastrak isn't self-explanatory.
"They should still call it the New Britain-to-Hartford Busway, at least as a tagline," Yellen said. "People need recognition that it is a busway."
Regardless of the name, the ridership on CTfastrak will come, Griebel said because of the increasing congestion on I-84 and the limited ways to expand the interstate.
The Shoreline East rail line from New Haven to New London used to have low ridership and high passenger subsidies, Griebel said. Passenger counts increased drastically when construction work started on the Quinnipiac Bridge and congestion thickened on I-95.
Hartford will eventually need to reconstruct the I-84 viaduct in the heart of the city, a project that will further tie up traffic on the interstate for as many as eight years, Griebel said.
That will make public transportation wildly popular for the east-west crowd in Central Connecticut, he said.
"Just because they built it, doesn't mean they will come," Griebel said. "It is up to all of us to make sure we are promoting the busway… Make sure the ridership DOT is projecting becomes a reality."