The federal government upped its support for the 9.4-mile New Britain-to-Hartford busway to $455 million on Monday, at almost the same moment when members of the congressional deficit supercommittee said they couldn't reach a deal to cut the federal debt.
Coincidence? Of course. But that federal money, including Monday's infusion of $275 million, made Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's crucial support for this risky project awfully easy.
Even if the busway fails, it will handily deliver enough construction jobs and roadway infrastructure to justify Connecticut's $112 million share of the cost. The fact that Texans are also kicking in another $25 million or so, to name just one other state, was of no concern to Malloy, nor should it have been.
That goes a ways toward explaining the federal budget problem. And it explains why, for better or worse, we will have a gleaming new busway system for $60 million per mile in just three short years. If we had to pay for it ourselves, we would not have bought it. The numbers don't add up.
It's tempting to say the busway is as doomed to failure as a downtown Hartford football stadium would have been. Projections call for 16,000 riders a day, a number that seems dicey considering the ridership of other mass transit options in Connecticut, except Metro North.
Maybe the busway will draw all those folks if we open an oyster bar at the terminal in Hartford, just like the oyster bar at Grand Central Station. After all, we had the Honiss Oyster House, and Hartford was more lively for it.
The oyster theory aside, it's also tempting to say that even a successful busway wouldn't be worth the effort since it only promises to remove a few thousand cars a day from I-84, at best — a small fraction of the total.
Tempting, but pointless. The busway opponents have lost. The challenge now is to make this thing work — and along the way, to change the way people think about buses, because that's what it will take.
"People are going to be persuaded that this is high-quality bus service, not like anything that's ever been done," said David A. Lee, general manager of CT Transit in the Hartford, New Haven and Stamford regions.
Not that Lee is badmouthing the service of his own current fleet — he's clearly proud of the work CT Transit does, and he hopes to win the contract for the busway. But a dedicated highway, pothole-free, with limited stops and "articulated" buses carrying 60 passengers in two sections connected by a flexible midsection, will seem more like a train than a bus.
Add to that the ability of this "train" to jump the tracks and carry riders directly onto the busway from, say Plainville, and end up at the front door of, say, Hartord Hospital — and that 16,000 figure starts to come into focus. "I think it's a realistic number," Lee said.
The challenge is impossible if we're measuring this thing by the full, $567 million price tag for our cousins in Texas and Alaska who own a piece of it.
Consider: If we had to pay off that amount in 30 years with a 5 percent loan, the bill would come to $36 million a year. At 16,000 riders a day, or 4 million riders a year, that comes out to $9 per trip before the first tank of gas is filled, before the first driver is hired.
But every form of transportation — including cars and highways — comes with a huge subsidy, as MetroHartford Alliance CEO Oz Griebel pointed out Monday. So we move on, hoping it's an investment that pays off in broader ways.
Griebel believes the busway doesn't explain the federal deficit, which is, as he correctly notes, based on military and entitlement spending, largely Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. He's in the investment camp.
"There's got to be a comprehensive marketing plan to go along with this," Griebel said. "You don't do it by prayer. … It's like when you build a ballpark, you don't just sit there and hope people come to the games."
The key word here is "comprehensive." If the busway is part of a broader picture, that means we need to prod neighborhood development around the stations, using other forms of social experimentation.
And regardless of what mass transit options we build, we need to raise taxes on gasoline, sharply and permanently, as a state and a nation. That will help people think differently about where they want to live, which is the philosophy of the busway to begin with.
I just wish the plan wouldn't turn Flower Street at the back door of The Courant into a dead-end, cutting off my route home.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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