Governor Defends Controversial Busway, Maintains It Will Help Boost Economy Along Path
By Don Stacom
January 16, 2012
Despite harsh criticism on some fronts, the New-Britain-to-Hartford busway will turn out to be a hit with commuters -- and a bargain, too, said Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
"We complete the project, the economy continues to gather strength, we begin attracting jobs along that corridor -- the busway will be seen as a great alternative," the governor said in an extended interview with The Courant about the state of transportation in Connecticut.
"Worst-case scenario? People don't respond -- and we end up with a new road system in and out of Hartford for $60 million."
As he begins his second year in office, Malloy offers the busway as evidence that the state is transforming how it manages its network of highways, rail lines, bus routes and shipping ports.
Scattershot planning, false savings and neglect have eroded the infrastructure for years, but that's not happening any longer, Malloy said.
Even though budgets are brutally tight, Malloy spent his first year pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into targeted transportation projects -- the busway, the New Haven-Springfield commuter line, more new trains for Metro-North, a strategy plan for reviving port traffic and an intensive schedule for maintenance of highway bridges.
The common thread is that they're key parts of a network to move people, Malloy said.
The first Democratic governor since 1991 said it's not a mystery why the state has billions of dollars worth of overdue repairs and reconstruction for its roads, train lines and ports.
"What people are used to thinking about with transportation is each project standing by itself, not interconnected, not relating to what you can do five years, 10 years, 20 years from now. That's been the Republican view for the better part of 50 years -- it's the wrong view," he said.
"It's why they were very comfortable cutting back on bridge maintenance and not replacing the [Metro North] catenary system in a timely fashion. It's why we have 80-year-old switching stations and better than 100-year-old bridges. In their mind, they can isolate each one of those projects. But you can't -- it's a continuum."
No transportation project has been more controversial for Malloy than the $567 million busway. The plan has been brewing since the late '90s, but decision time came on Malloy's watch.
Three months after his inaugural, he endorsed it, winning cheers from construction unions and encouraging the federal government to kick in the last $275 million in aid.
Critics still decry it as a boondoggle, saying the state is wasting more than $100 million in guaranteed highway aid along with $112 million of its own money. But Malloy dismisses such arguments.
"You're never going to win the skeptics over. Fundamentally, they don't understand," he said. "There's this total misunderstanding -- and the Republicans created this -- that this is $500 million of Connecticut taxpayers' money."
By the governor's calculations, Connecticut is putting up just $112 million, and spending almost half of that fixing nearby bridges, roads and utilities that needed the work anyway.
That means about $60 million buys a 9.4-mile highway dedicated to rapid transit buses serving all of central Connecticut, he said.
And he predicted that when the viaduct that carries I-84 through the center of Hartford is eventually replaced in coming years, commuters facing mammoth traffic jams will think the busway is priceless.
"If you just think of taking down parts of I-84 and what that does to traffic, to people's average commute in and out of Hartford, that's what the skeptics choose to ignore. What are the alternatives? Local roads?" he said. "The people opposed to the bus system can't even wrap their minds around how complicated it's going to be to replace portions of 84 in and out of Hartford."
After years of a revolving door at the transportation department's top office, the state has the right commissioner with James Redeker, said Malloy, who gave Redeker the job in August.
Connecticut was shut out of two major rounds of federal transit funding during Gov. M. Jodi Rell's administration, and Malloy said Redeker's team is better prepared to land big transportation grants.
"You pick your targets. The problem with Connecticut, historically, is that we don't have our data together. We go into a round of competitive grants with one hand tied behind our back," he said. "I can't tell you who is going to win the election or who will control Congress, but if I don't have the information ready to go, I can't compete, whatever happens."
The state has received $30 million from a federal high-speed rail grant that was rejected by Florida, and Malloy promises the state will stay focused on improving Amtrak's Springfield-New Haven line.
The 62-mile route is part of New England's major rail initiative, and is Connecticut's long-term solution to growth and traffic along the I-91 corridor.
"Over a 20-year period of time, commutation on the New Haven line becomes incredibly important. It needs to be concentrated on for the long-term, we have to build it on the short-term basis," he said.
At the same time, he said, the state needs to put more money into fixing deteriorated bridges and highways and maintaining others so they stay in decent shape.
"People on the transit side think I'm spending too much on bridges. ... People on the road side think I'm spending too much on transit," Malloy said. "What I'm really trying to explain to everyone is that their system will do well individually only if the other systems do well."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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