With regional planners discussing ways to redesign I-84 through downtown, business leader Michael Nicastro of Bristol says their idea should be enough to kill the long-planned busway to New Britain.
Regional planners are discussing ways to redesign I-84 as it passes through downtown Hartford, and Bristol business leader Michael Nicastro says their ideas should be cause to kill the long-planned busway to New Britain.
Replacing the elevated portion of I-84 with a ground-level highway would require moving a stretch of the busway route, and Nicastro said it would be foolish to build the busway only to have to rebuild it later.
"The overpriced busway plan is a roadblock," said Nicastro, executive director of The Chambers of Commerce of Central Connecticut and one of the busway's most outspoken opponents. "If the cost to build the busway is in excess of $60 million a mile, then how much more will it cost to move it after it's built?
"This is simply more wasted money and effort that could be avoided if the busway was replaced with regional rail."
But busway advocates — including the planners who are designing various ways to rebuild I-84 — dismiss that kind of criticism as bluster from people grasping for any reason to block the bus-only highway between Hartford and New Britain.
In fact, the need to replace the I-84 viaduct through Hartford in the next 10 to 20 years is actually a reason to complete the busway beforehand, they say.
"Whenever the I-84 work happens, the busway is going to be even more important," said Lyle Wray, executive director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments, which supports the busway and also is coordinating the I-84 planning.
"You're talking about construction all through downtown, disconnecting ramps, closing roads, opening roads. You're really going to need public transportation then," Wray said.
The state Department of Transportation projects that 15,000 riders a day will use the busway, including thousands of commuters who might choose it over the frequent traffic jams on I-84. That figure is likely to jump significantly whenever the state begins long-term construction on the elevated stretch of I-84 near downtown, said Wray and Jennifer Carrier, the CRCOG's transportation planning manager.
The viaduct might be rebuilt as it is, or could be replaced by a ground-level highway, according to the CRCOG. Either choice would require a long period of lane closures and diversions, worsening delays on a highway that carries about 175,000 cars, trucks and buses a day.
The CRCOG recently concluded that moving the Amtrak line, which runs under the elevated highway, to the north would create enough space to drop I-84 to ground level. Under that plan, part of the highway would go through a trench near Bushnell Park and would be covered, effectively creating a short tunnel. CRCOG says the new highway would fit better with surrounding neighborhoods and free up more than a dozen acres downtown.
The busway path is proposed to run alongside the rail lines, though, so moving the tracks probably would mean moving the busway. Nicastro said he can't see the sense in building the drainage system and bus highway in the next two years, then tearing up the Hartford end in a decade or two to rebuild it to the north.
Wray said that only about 1,000 to 1,500 feet of the busway would be affected, and that the cost will be minor compared to the expense of rebuilding the highway and ramps.
The DOT is waiting on more than $240 million in federal funding for the busway. If that's approved, state officials hope to finish construction and start service in 2014.
State Sen. Don DeFronzo, D-New Britain, co-chairman of the transportation committee, has said he would prefer using the busway route for regional rail service that could link Hartford and New Britain with Bristol, Waterbury, Bridgeport and New York. He has also warned that the state's ability to borrow for expansive transportation projects is getting thin, and has offered the busway as an example of a project to cut.
The rest of New Britain's legislative delegation, though, is solidly pro-busway. U.S. Rep. John Larson, whose support is seen as critical for securing federal busway funding, has stood behind the project despite nearly two years of controversy about it.
Advocates say Connecticut has the chance to get frequent commuter bus service running within just a few years. Trying to build a passenger rail system on the decrepit Waterbury to New Britain tracks would take more than a decade, they say.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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