Now Funded, Hartford’s Busway Survives a Decade of Dissent

» After thirteen years of planning, a federal financing guarantee puts the project to connect the Connecticut capital and New Britain on sound footing.

The New Britain-Hartford busway, a 9.4-mile bus rapid transit line that has been under consideration since the late 1990s, has finally locked in the funds to be completed. A New Starts grant announced last week by the Federal Transit Administration will cover about half of the project’s $567 million cost; construction of the segregated right-of-way and 11 stations will begin next year, with completion expected in 2014. It will be the latest true busway to open in the United States, following similar projects in Boston, Los Angeles, Miami, and Pittsburgh.

The decision to move forward with a busway at a cost of $60 million a mile was controversial — just as it was in other cities that have implemented bus rapid transit systems in lieu of rail programs. The 13-year gestational period of the project is one indication of the problems the project faced. Despite support from former governors John Rowland and M. Jodi Rell, two Republicans, critiques from project opponents, who cited its high costs and perceived disadvantages with regard to rail, delayed action.

When Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy entered office early this year, he heard similar opposition from both Democrats and Republicans, but he decided to sign on definitively in April with $113 million in state support, leading to the FTA’s new commitment (the remainder of funds come from other federal sources).

The busway, expected to carry a total of 16,000 passengers a day — 5,000 of whom will be new to transit — will feature all of the elements crucial to a good BRT project, including off-board fare-collection, level boarding, signal priority at intersections, and next bus arrival information at well-outfitted stations. Its reserved right-of-way throughout its route will allow much faster travel times: 20-minute trips between downtown Hartford and downtown New Britain, down from between 42 and 52 minutes offered by existing bus service.

Most intriguingly, the corridor provides the opportunity for feeder service into and out of the busway. As illustrated in the map at the top of the page, buses will not only run from Hartford to New Britain, but also extend to cities like Bristol and Waterbury, being able to bypass congestion on I-84. Others will reach the University of Connecticut Health Center. At peak hours, up to 20 buses will run in each direction on the route.

These elements make it difficult to criticize the busway from the perspective of its potential to improve mobility in the corridor running southwest from Hartford. The project fulfills all of the technical requirements for a world-class BRT network.

But opposition to the project was — and remains — steady. Part of the criticism focused on the program’s relatively high costs; GOP opposition in recent months, fundamentally anti-transit, launched a “block the bus” campaign in the face of Governor Malloy’s support. This disagreement has assumed a partisan color: Democrats who once argued that the project would make more sense as rail have muted their objections.

Yet other organizations which are typically pro-transit, like the Sierra Club, have been steadfast in their disgruntlement with the line. Their concern? The busway’s construction will make future rail expansion in Connecticut far more difficult. At the heart of the matter is the project’s route, which will extend five miles south from Hartford along Amtrak’s New Haven-Hartford-Springfield Corridor (soon to be upgraded to full double trackage for an increase in service), and then branch off on 4.4 miles of the abandoned freight railroad right-of-way that runs to Bristol from Newington.

This latter section, called the Newington Secondary Corridor, has been considered for rail expansion in recent years by Connecticut legislators, but the installation of the busway will make it physically impossible to situate rail there later, as there is not enough room for both in the right-of-way. Is the appeal of the busway, such as allowing feeder routes to use it, strong enough to rule out the use of the corridor by rail into the future?

Would it have made more sense — and perhaps been cheaper — to install new tracks along the Newington Secondary and simply connect them to the New Haven-Hartford line, which would need few upgrades other than those already programmed for it? This course was likely not pursued as the improvements on that rail mainline have only been funded in the last two years thanks to the Obama Administration’s intercity rail grants, while the New Britain-Hartford busway has been in planning for more than a decade.

Less mentioned by opponents of the project is the proposed terminus of the line, at Union Station in downtown Hartford. While the station serves intercity buses and Amtrak, it is not at the center of downtown; in fact, it is 4,500 feet from the convention center on the other end of downtown. Existing buses run by CT Transit extend into the center of Hartford, at the Old State House on Main Street, for a reason: That’s where the greatest concentration of employment is located. While Union Station is not far from these areas, a more than half-mile walk between the busway and a job puts in serious question the appeal of the new transit service for downtown workers.

One hopes that the transit agency will choose to extend many of the buses using the busway further into the center of the city, an option that would not only require no construction, but also provide a real justification for the choice of bus over rail for this corridor, since trains, unlike buses, would have no alternative but to remain at the station.

Image above: Feeder routes into New Britain-Hartford Busway, from CT Transit

37 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • No Transfer Needed

    The busway buses will not terminate at Union station. If someone would like a healthy walk, they’re certainly welcome to take one. But, as you suggest, riders can also remain on the busway buses and be transported to the heart of downtown without needing a walk or a transfer.

    • I’m happy to hear that. What route will the buses take when they enter downtown? Will all buses on the busway extend into downtown?

      • No Transfer Needed

        Some will get off at Aetna. Loops would be Church to Main or Capitol to Main. And routings can always change as demand changes over time.

      • Kevin C

        The Intermodal Triangle Plan for downtown Hartford shows the Busway vehicles will be extended from Union Station and through the downtown to the Convention Center (it looks like within the Intermodal Triangle they will have signal priority…can’t tell if signal priority crosses Main St. It also shows that routes that now turn back on either side of Main St will now cross it (so routes from the Busway will go to the convention center and routes from the East will go all the way to Union Station).

        The June 2012 TIGER Grant to Hartford (p.4 on the DOT TIGER IV pdf says DOT is putting up $10m of the $21 the plan requires.

  • “the installation of the busway will make it physically impossible to situate rail there later”

    Hmm. Is this actually true, or would it be feasible to have tracks and pavement on the same lane as per streetcars, many light rail systems, and some heavy rail lines. I remember the heavy rail lines running down the center of streets of Victoria BC well, particularly trying to cross one in the rain on my bicycle at the wrong angle.

    Technically difficult or expensive perhaps, impossible is a much higher test.

    • Good point — it would be possible to install tracks along the corridor, though that would require the bus lanes to be shut down. I was suggesting that you couldn’t put tracks next to the bus lanes, as the right-of-way isn’t wide enough.

      • Is it certain that the busway would have to shutdown to install light rail track? Frequency could not be maintained at 20 vehicles per hour, but it seems like a short section could be alternate-way signaled while the lane next to it had Rapid Streetcar track installed. You’d only need to shutdown the busway completely to shift the signaling from one segment to the next, which could be done on the weekend.

        You can also work on alternate segments. Say that you split a section of the corridor into build segments A, B, C, D, E … and work one lane at a time. You can work on A and C, with alternate-way signaling at each end, and use B as a crossing segment. When one lane is finished, you can work on the other lane of A and C, using the finished lane for alternate-way transit. Then, when the “odd” segments are all finished, you can work on B and D, using C as the crossing segment.

        In either case, it will impose a delay [er trip that scales to the length of segment being worked on at one time, and one would try to schedule more disruptive operations during the weekend.

        Even better, of course, if there enough shoulder and margin to put temporary crossing sections to the opposite side of the lane being worked on.

        And as long as they are laying a roadbed that is adequate for up to 20 heavy road vehicles each way, one could hope that the installation of the rail could be done without having to entirely rebuild the road bed ~ an advantage in this setting for a Rapid Streetcar as opposed to heavy rail.

        It would seem that if demand appears sufficient to swap in higher capacity Rapid Streetcars for the core route, mixed with BRT services extending outside of the core route, that the upgrade ought to be manageable.

        • Nathanael

          One would hope so.

          There’s been an awful lot of “build the wrong thing, rip it out and build again” when it comes to transportation in the US in the last 50 years. I hope it doesn’t require too much work to electrify this route.

          As a fossil fuel busway it will always underperform, but at least it will be connected to a genuinely decent rail line, which should help encourage future rail laying.

          • Nathaniel,

            I am still trying to get good information on the feasibility of using electric trolley BRT at higher speeds. I have paced trolley buses going about 70 km/hr (43 m/hr) in Vancouver BC, but am not sure how suitable the technology is for regular use at higher speeds.

            Most trolley bus lines are frequent stop runs at low speeds, but I have never found a source discussing the top feasible speeds. Maybe all that is needed on this route is some trolley wires and trolley buses to go electric. (This would introduce complications on open BRT lines with passing lanes at stations, even with dual wire sets in each direction. But almost everything to do with transit is complicated.)

            Maybe someone at Siemens or another of the electric drive giants has info on this?

            • Buckeyeman

              In the mid-80s, I was told by ETB drivers in both Toronto and Philadelphia that that the ETBs in each city had sped governors keeping them from going faster than 35 mph or so because of the possibility of dewiring at higher speeds.

            • Max Wyss

              There used to be interurban trolleybuses. However, at that time, 60 km/h was already pretty fast, and generally accepted.

              If I remember correctly, the Swisstrolley 3 trolley buses are technically rated at 65 km/h, which is sufficient if running in an urban environment with speed limits at 50 or 60 km/h.

              The trolley poles appear to me comparable in design to trolley poles used for streetcars. The question is, how fast were these vehicles operated safely. Of course, the twin wires may create additional resonances limiting the speed.

              • However, since streetcars can use their tracks as the ground return, they only need one power supply line.

                A battery backed trolleybus operated in a dedicated busway would, of course, not be subject to loss of motive power due to loss of wire contact, so an automatic system for re-establishing wire contact could be based on specific stretches of wire where the guidance for re-establishing wire contact is in place.

                Indeed, the essential stretch for wire contact is approaching the stop, for power return from dynamic braking, and accelerating away from the stop, so focusing the support for automatically re-establishing wire contact in those locations could well offer substantial cost savings over a system to automatically re-establish contact at any part of the route … while having an automatic system while running on battery power until contact is re-established would offer substantial time savings over the process of manually restoring contact.

        • No Transfer Needed

          Note the Seattle Bus Tunnel which is now the Seattle Transit Tunnel with light rail and bus sharing a roadway with only temporal offsets and traditional rail signalling.

          • 23skidoo

            Speaking of “building the wrong thing”, the Seattle bus tunnel was built with rails, but they were incorrectly insulated, and had to be replaced at a large cost.

      • Max Wyss

        Assuming that the buses won’t be mechanically guided (as in that current example in Great Britain, a procedure as described by BruceMcF is definitely possible and feasible. There may be some limitations of the maximum speed (60 to 65 km/h), but that should be manageable. Another (theoretical) possibliity I could imagine would require guided buses, where the middle of the roadway would have a trench making space for meter gauge vignoles rails.

        It might be worthwile looking at the design of the roadway, and set it up in a way that adding rails could be made easier; how this would work, a civil engineer would have to tell us.

        • Matthew

          I’m not so sure about the feasibility of converting BRT to rail later on. The Orange line in Los Angeles is a prime candidate, but every conversation I’ve heard about it seems to preclude that on the basis that it would be too disruptive to current service. There’s much to be said for building the right thing the first time. I imagine the Orange line will be BRT for decades to come.

          • Max Wyss

            I consider it to be feasible. We can assume that the roadway has to be replaced in 15 to 20 years anyway, and that would be the ideal time to add rail operation. Signal protected running on one bus lane is also not a big deal, and limiting this to stretches up to 300 m in length, it would not interfere considerably with the bus schedules. So, the rails would be installed in segments of 300 m or so. Based on what I have seen with track replacement at the Verkehrsbetriebe Zürich, such a segment would be done in about 6 weeks (most of the time is required to let set concrete). Of course, this scenario assumes that after the conversion we would have a mixed bus/train operation. Converting that mixed scenario into a pure train scenario would be similar, but could eben be done with live rail traffic (again following the experiences with many streetcar/light rail systems in Europe. FWIW, the actual exchange of the trackwork, even very complex one, is done in Zürich over a weekend (meaning that on monday morning, the trains run over the new tracks… at reduced speed, but they do.

          • The Wikipedia machine claims that conversion to rail is prohibited under current law, and that there are limits on what measure revenue that Metro could use for the project. So while it is likely the least cost rail project in LA, there is a chicken and an egg political problem that getting people agitating to get those changed, they have to thing its a project that will deliver substantial benefits, and to get people advocating the benefits, you have to convince them the legal obstacles can be overcome.

            • Max Wyss

              Legislative roadblocks are a different story, indeed.

              On the other hand, it is possible to get decent bus-based capacity of a line by using “Megaliners”, preferrably in form of trolleybuses. Megaliners are double-articulated buses, up to 25 m long, offering space for up to 200 passengers. Of course, when using vehicles of that capacity, you can forget having the driver check every ticket, or even worse, sell tickets. But then, aren’t we talking about Bus Rapid Transit?

              So, not taking into account that “bus” is not “sexy” compared to light rail, it is possible to achieve relatively high capacity at reasonable operating costs using buses, as long as the operation is accordingly organized.

              • Yes, given a dedicated ROW and articulated buses, the part of full-cost operating costs that drag the dedicated busways down is the maintenance on the right of way ~ and as its easier to produce steel and aluminum on all-electric supply chains than asphalt, there’s every reason to expect that ROW maintenance cost to rise in the next several decades.

                Busways that pool routes that extend further on public roadway address that by cost-shifting part of the ROW cost to the maintenance budget of the public roadway.

              • Nathanael

                Indeed, the Orange Line is already suffering from pavement deterioration due to buses pounding it. Meanwhile, LA’s light rail lines are just fine.

                If you’ve got high volume, tracks are already cheaper to maintain. Asphalt is only cheaper for low-traffic routes, meaning ones with few buses and few trucks.

                Of course, asphalt prices will be rising as peak oil hits, but I researched that, and that will take a while, since asphalt uses a grade of oil which is a byproduct of other refining; asphalt prices will only go up after gasoline usage and diesel usage drops enough that they need to run refineries just to make asphalt.

                In contrast, home heating oil competes with gasoline and diesel for crude oil, and prices are skyrocketing. Propane and butane partially compete with gasoline and diesel, and prices are rising. Natural gas is also supply-constrained, even though some of it is produced by oil refining, so its price is going up.

                Only after demand destruction kicks in for gasoline and diesel will asphalt prices really start to rise. But it’ll happen…

            • Nathanael

              For the LA Orange line, conversion to rail is both prohibited AND required by current law. They’re gonna break one of them.

      • Yonah, if Amtrak trains can share asphalt with 16-year old drivers with learners permits, why couldnt rail share asphalt with highly trained professional bus drivers?

        Some people love to make it bus vs rail. That doesn’t have to be the case.

        As long as your rail takes its power from above, or from diesel, it can “share the road” with buses.

        Just because it isn’t common doesn’t mean it’s impractical.

        Yes, trains take longer to stop and such, but as long as you’re mixing them with professionals that understand the limitations and follow the signals, there will be no accidents.

        • Marcella D.

          JJJJJJ, I guess you fail to realize how rail signaling works. Unless you are talking of a very bare-bones tramway, e.g., one that operates based on visual signs and heavy inputs from the driver, any decent rail project requires a degree of automation that is simply not compatible with the paradigms of road traffic.

          One thing is to have at-grade rail X road crossing where all the features are centered on rail (the road is just a passive element to a gated crossing). Other is to assume they’d run over the exact same ROW.

          For the latter to happen, you either have insanely expensive buses fit with radio signaling and other devices, or you have “dumb” trains that can only be driven on sight (e.g., can’t go faster than the ability of the train driver to stop the vehicle altogether on sight). It’s a lose-lose proposition.

          • However, if we are talking about Rapid Streetcars, they are already capable of running in mixed traffic lanes, so running in lanes shared only with dedicated BRT vehicles is a substantial upgrade in ease of integration.

          • I know how rail signalling works. Only a small portion of this countrys rail runs on the more modern “semi-automated” kind. The majority is about engineers visually reading signals and speed signs.

            Im also talking about streets where Amtrak shares, not crosses, lanes with cars.

            • Max Wyss

              I think you and Marcella D. are talking past each other. Marcella compares “no signal operation” (that’s where the operator has no signals whatsoever and runs the train as he can see) with “signal protected operation”, where the operator relies on signals to proceed. The level of protection is not specified, but it can be assumed that there is at least an automatic stop when passing a closed signal.

              How fast is Amtrak operating on thos streets it shares with other road traffic? 10 km/h or so?

              • It would certainly be slower than a Rapid Streetcar in the same scenario, since the Rapid Streetcar will have a higher speed associated with the same stopping distance.

              • Yes, when Amtrak, South Shore, Freight, Monterey Passenger excursion etc run in the street, they run pretty slow. 10-15mph or so.

                And thats because theyre running between untrained amateurs, pedestrians, cross-streets, bikes, etc etc There are idiots coming from every direction.

                However, if the bus way is 100% independent and separate, and the only other people using it are professional bus engineers… then those limitations can be waived, because the bus drivers can be trained to the same standard that the train engineers are.

              • Marcella D.

                No, JJJJJJ, they can’t. I was referring to signal-protected rapid transit lines (in-cab or not, doesn’t matter).

                You would have to fit buses with signal protection as well. OR downgrade the performance of rail to match that of buses, which means running them significantly slower than otherwise possible given the bus(rail)way alignment, grades, curve radii.

                The essential question, for me, is: should a train be constrained to speeds where the driver can brake the train on sight, or should trains run relying on track signaling, with or without protection?

                In other others, can a train proceed to speeds limited by grade, curves and superelevation based on a green sign, or should it move on the ability of the driver to spot pedestrians etc.

                Just imagine a subway: its performance is improved not much in terms of maximum speed, but because it operates under a premise that signs, not sights, guide the movement of trains.

              • Of course, in tram systems all across the world, the “signaling” system is, “don’t run into the red lights of the tram ahead of you”. The task at hand, here, is relatively high stopping frequency local transport, not regional or intercity transport.

                For the local transport task and buses with equipment able to support signpost traffic signal priority, integrating their position into the Rapid Streetcar signaling on the dedicated ROW section seems to be straightforward. And the signal priority equipment pays for itself in more turns per vehicle per day, so fewer vehicles to achieve a given level of service on a high frequency, dedicated local transport route.

                Indeed, the Rapid Streetcars in question could just use the same signpost signaling.

              • Max Wyss

                The speed for operating “on sight” (German term “auf Sicht”) is limited to something between 40 and 50 km/h under good conditions. Considering the speed limit within the city of 50 km/h for the road traffic, theses speeds apply for mixed traffic lanes too). Dedicated right of way allows higher speeds for streetcars even without signal protection.

                In more critical environments (such as tunnels), where guesstimating distances is extremely difficult, signal protection becomes necessary. This signal protection can be a simple block signalling type, even without Automatic Train Stop. The driver simply has to follow the signal aspects.

                Now, it would be possible to equip buses with the necessary gear to operate on block signal protected right of way. The question is whether an automatic vehicle stopping system would be necessary, considering that the driver has much more control over the vehicle compared to a rail-based vehicle. But having the bus operating by signalization only is not really a technical question, but a questino of operation rules.

                To BruceMcF: In the town I am most familiar with, there are dedicated road signals for public transportation (streetcar and buses), In some cases, their aspects are controlled just by the control system for the intersection, in other cases, there is an input for the “Sesam” (communication device between the vehicle and the control system for the signalling) allowing to request priority, or a special signal sequence.

                The rule is that the dedicated signal’s aspect has priority over the general road signal. But if there is no dedicated signal, the road signal has to be followed. To me, that looks like a simple and sraigthforward concept.

              • Adirondacker12800

                The Lincoln Tunnel eXclusive Bus Lane has been operating for 40 years. If I remember correctly there has been one fatal accident in that time. It uses the outbound lanes for morning inbound bus traffic. Nothing more sophisticated than lighting up red X signs on the highway’s overpasses.

              • Remember that a substantial part of the requirement for the dedicated signaling to hit the 100km/hr that we expect of Rapid Streetcars running in dedicated right of ways is the same as the energy per seat mile advantage of the Rapid Streetcars over buses ~ the lower rolling resistance of steel on steel vs rubber on asphalt is, at the same time, a longer braking distance.

                So the main thing for mixing buses and trains on a dedicated mixed BRT/Rapid Streetcar corridor is detection of the presence of the bus. Given shorter stopping distance at equivalent speeds, entering a rail proceed with caution segment, the bus can just proceed, entering a rail stop segment, the bus can proceed with caution at a (designated) reduced speed.

                Signpost detectors can handle that ~ the signpost system is designed to determine whether the bus in question is a route that is going through or turning right at the particular alternative-signal equipped light, and is more than adequate for detecting, “hey, there’s a bus in this segment”. And, obviously, the signpost detectors can also police that the buses obey their proceed with caution speed limit, as speed is one of the things that may be transmitted in the data packet.

              • EngineerScotty

                FWIW, TriMet MAX is capable of speeds up to 35MPH (about 50 km/h) in what is locally known as “pre-empt” territory–places where MAX runs in close proximity to other traffic, and the system does not use block signalling. Short train consists running at medium speeds have little problem with line-of-sight operations. MAX already shares lanes with busses in the transit mall (though speeds there are lower than 35MPH), and will share lanes with busses and the Portland Streetcar across the new Willamette River bridge being built as part of the Milwaukie MAX project.

                I don’t know of any instances of busses and trains sharing a ROW at speeds higher than that; but I don’t know of any technical obstacle to professionally-driven, suitably equipped busses from being able to participate in a block-signalling scheme. The main issue would be ensuring the system knows where vehicles are at all times; a bus can’t indicate its presence by shorting out the rails, and other means of doing so (such as transmission) might produce a deadly false negative if the wayside communications fails, but that problem doesn’t seem insurmountable.

              • Adirondacker12800

                In a well designed system the wayside signals and the cab signals fail to “stop” In the worst case scenario they are displaying nothing at all, if the the signals aren’t displaying anything the rulebooks says that indicates “stop”

              • @Engineer Scotty:

                Yes, if it was me, I’d like to take advantage of the signpost receivers to have some other form of detector for a bus entering the block ~ maybe some form of laser detector.

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