After a 1997 study of increasing traffic on I-84 west of Hartford, state officials determined that a dedicated busway from New Britain to Hartford would take some of the commuter traffic off the highway and bring transit to a highly populated corridor. A busway was chosen over light rail or widening the highway because, officials said, it could be built more quickly and less expensively.
That was unduly optimistic. The 9.4-mile busway was originally supposed to open in 2006 and cost about $335 million. But delays, some excusable and some inexcusable, have driven the total price to $569 million and the completion date to late 2013. Legislators have begun to wonder, not irrationally, if a rail connection might be the better alternative.
However, the busway is finally moving ahead — and it should. The state Department of Transportation is holding community meetings to determine what kinds of service people want. Nearly 60 percent of the design work is done, property has been acquired and the remaining engineering challenges are being worked out. "Every segment of the project is moving ahead," said Michael Sanders, the DOT's transit administrator. Construction should begin in 2010.
This can work. Although light rail is the more popular option in many metropolitan areas across the country, bus rapid transit is catching on. Systems are up and running in such places as Pittsburgh, Portland, Los Angeles and Ottawa.
When well-executed, bus rapid transit isn't much different from light rail. It is a transit vehicle — an articulated bus — running on a fixed path, a roadway instead of rails. The advantage of buses is that they can drive off and on the busway. So, for example, an express bus coming to Hartford from, say, Waterbury, could pick up the busway and zoom into the city. Or a bus could loop through a neighborhood in West Hartford or Newington, pick up passengers, then get on the busway and take them to the city.
The advantage of rail is that it feels more permanent. But good busways also feel like they'll be there for a long time.
The DOT seems to be making progress on the two major transit projects in the central part of the state, the busway and the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter rail service (though the two-year environmental impact study should be streamlined). It's imperative that both be completed with all deliberate speed; indeed, officials should try to get some parts of both projects included in the anticipated federal infrastructure program, should it materialize.
The DOT has a point to prove. The delays on both projects, especially the busway, have been due in part to a lack of interest and commitment in the department, which for decades focused on road-building. But new Commissioner Joseph Marie has a background in transit projects and may be the right person at the right time.
This state needs to finish a transit project. It looks like DOT means to do it this time. If not, the legislature should create either a regional or state transit authority.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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