BRISTOL — - Opponents of the New Britain busway have ramped up their campaign by declaring that the project will consume about $100 million in federal funds that instead could be used to maintain Connecticut's aging bridges and highways.
"They keep making it sound like we'll get all this new federal money for the busway, but about 20 percent is money we were going to get anyway," said Mike Nicastro, president of the regional chamber of commerce.
But the state Department of Transportation has countered with its own heavyweight argument: If the busway plan is scuttled, Connecticut taxpayers will have to repay about $50 million in federal money that's already been spent for engineering and design.
Top transportation department officials also cautioned the regional planning agency for central Connecticut last week that if it voted to block the busway, all federally funded transit and highway projects in the region would stop.
"So everything is held hostage over this?" agency member Carl Johnson asked.
The $569 million New Britain project has been controversial since it was proposed — at a fraction of the cost — 12 years ago, and frustration has grown as the groundbreaking appears to get closer.
Opponents and some legislators say there could be a bruising political battle in the General Assembly when the time comes for Connecticut to borrow the last of the money it will need for the project — about $50 million.
A meeting Feb. 4 of the Central Connecticut Regional Planning Agency was a tense, three-hour session that included several shouting matches and rounds of angry accusations, particularly between Bristol and New Britain leaders. In the end, the agency board gave the DOT the procedural decision it sought.
The dispute involves three factions.
•Supporters say the busway is the best way to relieve I-84 traffic, revitalize downtown New Britain and benefit much of central Connecticut. The DOT projects 15,000 commuters a day would use the 9.6-mile bus-only highway. It would cost about $10 million a year to operate, and fares would cover $2.5 million, according to Michael Sanders, DOT project manager. Taxpayers would subsidize $7.5 million a year.
•Opponents argue that restoring the Waterbury-to-Hartford rail line would be cheaper and more efficient and would help Bristol and communities to the west that gain little from the busway.
•The third group acknowledges that the rail alternative looks more appealing, but also says that it isn't realistic: There's no plan, no design work and no hope of funding for many years.
Nicastro and others emphasized that once the busway is built, it will take the place of an abandoned Newington-to-New Britain rail bed that would be needed for an efficient Waterbury-to-Hartford commuter train in the future. That rail line could be routed south through Berlin, instead, but the change would create a longer commute and wasted mileage.
But he acknowledged that with federal requirements, the hope for a new rail system is a long way from construction. The busway, on the other hand, could be operating by late 2013, according to the DOT.
"Make no mistake: Rail is an idea, not a project. If you could print money like President Obama, you could start it tomorrow. But you can't," New Britain Mayor Timothy Stewart told the board. "The busway can put people to work in 12 months. The reality is the busway is here."
State Transportation Commissioner Joseph Marie backed Stewart's assessment, saying, "The busway is now. It creates jobs and reduces congestion."
Marie said the federal government is close to approving about $265 million in funding for the busway, and insisted that money could not be used instead to rebuild the rail system. If Connecticut backs away from the busway plan, that money would go to transit projects in other parts of the country, he said.
The DOT needed the regional planning agency to amend its long-term transportation plan by transferring allocations of future federal revenue into the busway account. That money — tens of millions of dollars — becomes part of the 80 percent federal funding for the busway.
Nicastro said taxpayers don't realize that when the DOT assures them the federal government will pay 80 percent of the busway bill, only 60 percent is "new" funding. The rest is money that Connecticut has already been promised and that could have been spent fixing bridges, highway ramps and streets, Nicastro said.
The DOT replied that all high-priced transit initiatives in the country rely on similar financial transfers. The cost of killing the busway would be substantial, the DOT warned.
"We've spent $53 million, and $50 million is federal money. If we don't go forward, we will have to pay that back," Marie said.
Marie and James Redeker, a senior DOT manager, told the agency that if it didn't approve the transfer, its long-term Transportation Improvement Plan would become invalid. Regions without an improvement plan can't get federal transportation funding, so all projects under way in and around Bristol would be frozen, the DOT warned.
Length of route
Roughly 30 miles
15,000 a day
Construction to start from now
Advocates acknowledge "probably years"
Formal design work
Creates new Hartford-to-New York route for riders
Improves freight system
Gives faster Hartford commute for riders east and south of New Britain
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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