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Rating Pulls Brake On Rapid Bus Project

Federal Agency: New Britain Link `Not Recommended'

February 9, 2005
By MIKE SWIFT, Courant Staff Writer

Federal transportation officials on Tuesday downgraded their rating of Greater Hartford's top mass transit priority, a proposed rapid bus link between Hartford and New Britain - a decision that leaves the $337 million plan in doubt.

The so-called New Britain-Hartford busway would create a 9.6-mile bus-only roadway, a transit route that would pass through Newington and the Elmwood section of West Hartford as it followed railroad rights of way to connect the downtowns of Hartford and New Britain.

In dropping the busway's designation to "not recommended" from "recommended," Federal Transit Administrator Jennifer L. Dorn criticized cost increases and said federal officials were concerned about the state Department of Transportation's financial capacity to build the project, as well as the state's overall commitment to its transportation system.

"The Hartford project has been plagued with some problems," Dorn said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. "The financial capacity of DOT to support this project is also of concern to us. The cost has tripled since the original estimate."

The busway's scheduled completion had already been delayed from 2007 to 2010, one reason costs have grown, local officials said. But the Federal Transit Administration's report had other criticisms of the project, among them the fact that "critical right of way agreements remain unexecuted."

"ConnDOT must better document its ability to rehabilitate and replace not only capital assets allocated to its Hartford Bus Division, but to its entire transit and highway infrastructure," said the Federal Transit Administration's annual report for the 2006 fiscal year. "Failure to demonstrate progress in advancing the [busway] project in the coming year could result in the removal of the project" from the list of projects competing for federal funding.

Local officials and a top DOT administrator said the busway could be saved with assurances to federal officials that it is being properly managed and that there would not be further delays or cost increases.

"The project is not dead," said Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez. "As the capital city's mayor, I'm going to take some regional responsibility for pushing this."

Transit advocates said the decision was more evidence of their long-held belief that the state transportation department favors highways over public transit projects. All Aboard!, a transit advocacy group, recently commissioned a report that said the state needs to reform the way it raises revenue for and spends money on transportation projects.

"I'm not surprised [about the busway decision]," said Toni Gold, a board member of All Aboard! "It was always just a crumb thrown to transit advocates."

The busway project is intended to take pressure off I-84, the region's most congested highway, and to provide access to jobs for people in Hartford and New Britain, where half of the region's residents without cars live. The project was also intended as a spine for the "transit oriented development" of housing and businesses around the 12 station stops planned for the route. The busway was expected to carry 17,200 riders a day.

The New Britain-Hartford busway grew out of a regional transportation plan completed by the Capitol Region Council of Governments in 1999, after the DOT killed the regional agency's plan to build a light rail link between Hartford and Bradley International Airport.

News of the federal recommendation was viewed as a major setback in New Britain, where some city leaders championed the busway as a way to resuscitate its struggling downtown.

An advisory committee spent 17 months studying ways to turn the transportation project into an economic development opportunity. The panel drew up proposals to cluster restaurants, retail shops and housing along the New Britain station stops.

"It was quite promising," said Mayor Timothy Stewart. "There were some pretty unique concepts out there."

The city and the council of governments have put a lot of time into the project, he said. "To have it pulled out from underneath you is pretty disheartening."

Indeed, the federal report said planning done by local officials to use the busway as a link to projects such as Adriaen's Landing in Hartford and to development in New Britain was a strong point of the proposal.

Tuesday's announcement caught local officials by surprise, although the DOT has known about the impeding federal downgrade since December. The state agency hired a full-time manager for the busway after federal officials urged them to, at a meeting between Transportation Commissioner Stephen E. Korta and federal officials.

"We didn't have a full-time project manager; now we do. There were projects with Amtrak [which owns the rights of way] that we did not attack in a timely fashion," said H. James Boice, chief of policy and planning for DOT, explaining other causes for the busway delays.

"[The busway] has always been the top priority for the region from our perspective. It's not like we haven't been doing anything. The project is at about 30 percent design."

Boice said he disagreed with the federal officials' criticism of DOT's support for buses and other transit, saying the state's buses carry over 30 million passengers a year.
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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