Bus Hartford

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