As rail advocates seek to ratchet up the train vs. busway rhetoric, it is important to keep in mind one key fact: Money for the busway cannot somehow be redirected now to a rail commuter project. That is not the way the federal process works.
Recently, advocates of a Waterbury-to-Hartford commuter rail line, with variations involving Bristol, have been increasingly vocal about abandoning the planned New Britain-to-Hartford busway in favor of their project.
The proposal for the $573 million, 9.4-mile busway with 11 stops between New Britain and Hartford grew from a two-year study of the best options for alleviating I-84 congestion in Greater Hartford. That study, the Hartford West Major Investment Study, analyzed a variety of transportation improvements including widening I-84, high-occupancy vehicle lanes on I-84 and several alignments of light rail, commuter rail and bus rapid transit. Bus rapid transit was selected as the most cost-effective transit solution to address congestion because it attracted more regional transit trips than any of the rail options, using federally approved ridership forecasting tools.
Should the busway be somehow shelved for a different project seeking federal funds, a new study would be required, which could take years. Furthermore, that study would have to begin with a neutral disposition toward the outcome. There can be no pre-determination that a rail system would be more cost-effective or efficient.
The Federal Transit Administration requires this process for any project seeking funding from its New Starts program; funding which would be required because the state of Connecticut could not afford such a project on its own (the busway project would be supported with 80 percent federal and 20 percent state funding).
It is important to point out that the busway does not interfere with the possibility of providing current or future freight or passenger service between Waterbury and Hartford via Bristol and Berlin. Connections can be made with Amtrak and proposed commuter trains at Berlin and Hartford, giving the region a connection to New Haven and to New York- or Boston-oriented intercity rail service.
The Connecticut Department of Transportation is very open to considering all mobility options. It will continue to evaluate proposals for Waterbury, Bristol and other communities seeking to rejuvenate their local economies through improved transportation infrastructure.
But it has now been well established that the busway project stands on its own merits. The U.S. Department of Transportation has already recommended the busway for New Starts funding with past appropriations. It is anticipated that the project will be awarded a full funding grant in the very near future, with construction beginning early next year.
As further proof of its value as a federally funded project, U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood recently announced that the busway would be one of five projects in the country to spotlight opportunities for disadvantaged and small business enterprises to participate in major transportation construction projects.
The busway's benefits will not be limited to the four busway towns. Proposed routes will also serve customers from off-busway communities west and south of New Britain, thereby extending the reach of the facility.
Busway express routes will offer new or improved service to Waterbury, Cheshire, Southington, Plainville and other off-busway towns. New busway services would also be added to improve connections and the frequency of trips to the University of Connecticut Health Center and the Westfarms mall area, two large employment centers in the western suburbs.
There will be service between Bristol and Hartford every 12 minutes during peak periods and every 20 minutes during off-peak hours. Buses will stop at downtown New Britain and then at downtown Hartford and all stations in between, with no transfer required.
Currently, the state-run express buses from Bristol carry about 170 commuters to downtown Hartford daily. And that's with no travel time advantage. The people in Bristol and Plainville have shown they will use high-quality bus service when it is available.
Here in Connecticut, we are building a networked system of transportation options — rail, bus, air and roadways. The busway is a critical piece of that network, and that system is what will support commuters, their employers and Connecticut's economy for the long haul.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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