The New Britain-Hartford busway is still just a proposal, but for property owners along the 9-mile route it's already a harsh reality.
Even though debate continues over whether the $569 million busway should even be built, the state has spent millions taking properties through eminent domain and demolishing buildings along the proposed route. It's even tossed out some well-established businesses.
Eminent domain — the government's power to acquire property for private or public use — is fraught with risk. Large-scale projects can be years in the making — the busway proposal dates from the late 1990s — and can fall victim to changing political priorities, unforeseen obstacles and loss of funding.
Connecticut is littered with state and local projects that were never built after eminent domain was used to seize properties.
In eastern Connecticut, for instance, 30 homes were taken in the late 1980s for the ill-fated Route 6 expressway, which was later scuttled by environmental concerns.
In New London, homeowners in the Fort Trumbull area fought to save their homes — unsuccessfully — all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Yet the planned private development for the area has yet to materialize.
$14.3 Million In Acquisitions
People whose homes or land were forcibly taken by the government for the busway project say it has been a painful experience.
In 2007, Gabriel Grenier lost his West Hartford gas station and car repair shop, which was opened by his father in the 1960s, to the busway.
"It still gets me," Grenier, 60, said. "They haven't done anything. I don't think anything is going to happen."
Since 2007, the state Department of Transportation has purchased 17 commercial and residential properties at a cost of $14.3 million and still has another five to go. The most recent property owner to hear from the government, in New Britain, got a letter three weeks ago.
So far, eight structures have been demolished at a cost of $500,000. Another 100 easements and acquisitions involving slivers of property must still be negotiated.
Supporters say the busway is a sound idea that will add 4,000 riders a day to buses traveling along a dedicated route to and from Hartford, which should ease highway congestion. Critics say they find it hard to envision commuters hopping on the busway for the short ride to Hartford, 15 minutes at most.
The state Department of Transportation has received some federal money to plan the busway and has been talking with federal transit officials. But the DOT has yet to apply for a crucial $270 million in construction funds, and getting the planning money doesn't guarantee approval.
So far, the state has committed $50 million in bond money, but must still throw in another $60 million, just as the state is facing a budget crisis.
"You have to ask yourself if it was worth taking a perfectly well-maintained piece of private property where someone lives or has a business for the prospect of something that might never be built," said Bert Gall, a senior attorney at the libertarian Institute for Justice in Washington, D.C., which represented the homeowners in the New London case.
"It's insane that they would have to condemn before they even know if they are going to get approvals."
Michael Sanders, the DOT's transit administrator, acknowledged that it's a gamble acquiring properties before final approvals are secured. But he said the state can't wait until construction is ready to begin because acquiring properties could delay progress for years.
"You can't pull up to start work and have someone cooking breakfast inside," Sanders said.
Sanders said the Federal Transit Administration, in an initial interview, required that all properties be acquired before funding could be approved. But the FTA disputed that contention. Subsequently, a DOT spokesman said acquiring the properties was intended to meet the agency's internal "Real Estate Management Plan."
"We would not have approached this process any differently," said Judd B. Everhart, the spokesman. "We were moving forward on the basis of what we believed was most prudent: having all of our ducks in a row before trying to put a shovel in the ground."
A Potent Power
Eminent domain powers are rooted in the U.S. Constitution; without them, the country's interstate highway system wouldn't have been built. But using the power is a balancing act weighing the public good against the sacrifice of property owners.
That's difficult for Grenier to see from his current job as a driver for a construction company. For nearly 40 years, Grenier ran the gas station and repair shop that his father opened at the corner of Flatbush and New Park avenues in West Hartford. He has owned the property since 1981 and intended to retire from the shop.
"Then I have a son-in-law who is an excellent mechanic, and I was going to roll it over to him," Grenier said.
Those plans changed two years ago. He learned that his gas station would be needed for the busway project, a surprise because his business was across the intersection from the proposed Flatbush station. His property, it turns out, was needed to construct a flyover ramp to accommodate the busway and existing rail lines.
Grenier was eventually paid $557,000, according to state records. The gas station was demolished in 2007 and the lot now sits vacant.
State legislators in Connecticut have long debated whether to provide more protection for property owners caught in the path of redevelopment projects.
In the late 1980s, the legislature gave residential property owners first crack at buying back their homes if a public highway project wasn't built and if fewer than 25 years had passed since the original acquisition. Similar provisions for homeowners who lose property to private developments were enacted after the New London Supreme Court case.
While she believes eminent domain is an important tool for public transportation projects, state Sen. Edith G. Prague, D-Columbia, said state law still needs to go further and include heirs of the original owners.
"And they ought to be able to buy it back for what they were paid for it," said Prague, who intends to pursue those options in the next session of the legislature.
For businesses, Sanders said, the state pays relocation expenses if owners want to move their business elsewhere.
That isn't much comfort to Bruce Bedrick, who lost his carwash at the corner of New Britain and New Park avenues in West Hartford.
When he bought the property in 1986, it was a dream location near a busy intersection in an area with residents who had higher incomes. He saw it as key to the future growth of his business. Improvements in the town's Elmwood section as well as recent development in and around New Park Avenue, including the opening of a Home Depot and the Charter Oak Marketplace shopping center, would probably bring more customers.
But that was before the state needed his property and two others next door for the busway's Elmwood station. Even though it would take months to acquire the property, once the word got out that the state would take it, Bedrick said he slowly watched his business dwindle. Commercial customers who bought washes in bulk bowed out, not knowing how long the carwash would be there.
"They said, 'Why enter into an agreement if you're not going to be there in a year?'" Bedrick remembered. "I tried lowering the prices, but once the word is out, that's it."
Bedrick still operates Mr. Auto carwashes in Hartford, Manchester and New Britain, but the loss of the West Hartford site was a blow to the business.
"For our future growth, it definitely changed things," Bedrick said.
Relocation wasn't an option for him because new restrictions on carwashes in West Hartford would make it more difficult to open a new location.
Although his carwash property was legally acquired and the building demolished nearly two years ago, Bedrick is appealing the price offered by the state because, he said, it was less than what it cost to build the carwash originally.
Bedrick said he understands the state's schedule of acquisitions, but the months between the announcement of eminent domain proceedings and takeover of the property were "a nightmare."
"When the big guy comes in and decides they want to take the property, it really puts the little guy under pressure," Bedrick said. "It's hard to conduct business. It's hard to survive."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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