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Don't Detour Rail To New Britain

Tom Condon

July 19, 2009

Back in the early 1990s, New Britain Mayor Donald DeFronzo and I were standing atop a parking garage in New Britain, shooting a television special about cities. He noted ruefully that a highway built through the city two decades earlier had savaged the city's grand list without even putting an exit into downtown (a mistake that took years to correct).

Today, DeFronzo is a state senator from New Britain and co-chairman of the legislature's transportation committee. About a year ago he realized that commuter rail along the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield "Inland Route" line might actually happen.

The problem with this, from DeFronzo's perspective, is that it could lead to another transportation mistake for New Britain. The Hardware City isn't on the main line. So, as he said in a recent interview, there may be trains zipping up and down the line, leaving New Britain off on a sidetrack.

But he wants to explore an alternative. What if some or all of the trains came off the main line at the Berlin junction, ran through New Britain and rejoined the main line at the Newington junction (or vice-versa going south)?

As it happens, New Britain is on a rail line that runs to Bristol and Waterbury, and there's been a recent burst of enthusiasm from local officials and some state legislators for reopening passenger service on this line.

I understand that DeFronzo doesn't want to see the city make another transportation mistake. It's certainly appropriate to consider running the commuter rail service through New Britain. But here and now, it is not the right thing to do.

The major problem with the idea is that it will almost assuredly kill the New Britain-to-Hartford busway. The old rail corridor from New Britain to Hartford it hasn't had tracks in it for decades is where part of the busway is scheduled to be built. If a double-tracked rail line needed for the 110 mph trains the state envisions is built in the corridor, there isn't room for the busway.

If we were starting everything from scratch, it might make sense to rebuild this old rail line. But we are not, and it doesn't.

The busway, after an inexcusably slow start, is well along. The design work is nearly finished. State officials are applying for the final $275 million in federal funding this fall, and expect to receive it. That's the last major obstacle. It can open in 2013, if all goes well.

The busway will be a good thing. There will be large, comfortable, frequent buses moving up and down the 9.4-mile corridor. People will be able to get on the bus in New Britain and take a 20- to 22-minute ride into downtown Hartford. No sitting on I-84 behind an overturned tractor-trailer or whatever.

With downtown Hartford only a short bus ride away, housing in downtown New Britain becomes an attractive and affordable option. Indeed, it was partly because of the busway that the city has attracted a downtown developer who plans to build as many as 1,000 apartments. "The busway is huge, a tremendous thing," said current New Britain Mayor Timothy Stewart.

Planners are looking to connect commuter bus service from Bristol, Cheshire and Waterbury to the busway, and to tie in WestFarms mall, the UConn Health Center and Central Connecticut State University. They think they can beat the projected ridership of 15,000 riders a day. Good transit systems are beating projections all over the country.

The penalty for delaying the busway could be very steep. If we don't apply for the federal money this fall, we are not likely to get it, and we are less likely to have the next project funded, whatever it is.

To start this project over, especially if it involves replacing the worn tracks all the way to Waterbury, could mean another 10 to 15 years or more without transit in the corridor.

Also, trying to redirect the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield rail line through New Britain will likely add years to that project. No!

It's fine to begin long-term study of other rail lines; rail is increasingly important. But this state needs to finish a transit project. The commuter rail service along the Inland Route will fundamentally change transportation and development patterns for the better. It will mean less pollution and energy waste. The busway will create viable transit on a shorter, east-west corridor. And it's not an either/or; both projects can be built, and should be.

DOT Commissioner Joseph Marie said he is focused on getting these projects done, and he is right. Besides, it is only an eight-minute ride on the busway from downtown New Britain to the rail line at the Newington junction. New Britain won't really be left out.

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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