GOP legislators, Sierra Club allied [Waterbury Republican-American]

August 8, 2011

Article as it appeared in the Waterbury Republican-American on August 5, 2011

The busway battle is about to be joined.

Determined opponents of the proposed busway from New Britain to Hartford are planning showdowns at two public meetings in coming weeks. They promise they will not relent until the project is killed.

The state wants to build a 9.4-mile bus corridor over an abandoned railway and along an Amtrak route to move commuters in and out of Hartford and relieve traffic congestion on Interstate 84. Buses would come and go every three to six minutes during peak hours, and the ride is expected to take 20 minutes. Express buses from Waterbury, Cheshire, Southington and Bristol would feed into the busway every half-hour during peak periods.

The state Department of Transportation projects the cost at $567 million, including $80 million already spent on engineering, environmental work and land acquisition.

In the eyes of critics, the project is a waste of money. They are planning an all-out effort to stop the busway, beginning next week.

The Department of Transportation will host an information session on the project Thursday at 6:30 p.m. in the DiLoreto Multimedia Room at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain. The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection will hold a Sept. 7 hearing on an inland wetlands permit for the project, but as of Thursday had not scheduled a time or place.

Republican state Sens. Joe Markley, R-Southington, and Whit Betts, R-Bristol, petitioned for the environmental hearing as a way to delay or kill the busway, which Markley said he vehemently opposes.

“It was opening another front against the project,” said Markley, whose district includes Wolcott and parts of Waterbury, Cheshire and Southington. “If this is slowed, there are many things that could happen that could stop it.”

State transportation officials say the project is necessary and affordable.

Federal funding will pay for 80 percent of the project and state funding will pay for 20 percent, said Public Transit Administrator Michael Sanders. The State Bond Commission has approved more than $90 million for the busway and the state is waiting on $266 million from the New Starts federal grant program, Sanders said. The DOT is anticipating it will receive funding and break ground in October, Sanders said. Bids for soil decontamination and the largest construction contract will be opened later this month, Sanders said. “We wouldn’t be putting things out to bid and having contractors go forward with bids if we didn’t think it was going to happen,” Sanders said.

The busway will help the Waterbury-Hartford corridor accommodate more traffic, Sanders said. The department estimates 8,000 people will ride the buses every day, 400 of them from Waterbury and Cheshire

Riders coming from those feeder routes will save about 12 minutes of travel time, but have a greater advantage in predictability, Sanders said.

“If you’re driving now, you may have days where you cruise through and it takes 25 minutes to get from Southington to Hartford,” Sanders said. “You’re going to have other days where it takes you an hour.”

Opponents of the busway say the project is too expensive and will not be fast or convenient enough to attract many riders or decongest highways. The state will need to subsidize the busway in the years after it is built, and the money spent on the project could be put to better us to maintain highways and repair bridges, Markley said.

“Anybody in the state can come up with a better use for it than a 9-mile busway nobody’s asking for,” Markley said.

Even the Connecticut Sierra Club opposes the project. The environmental group bases its opposition largely on financial grounds, although club members do have concerns about the environmental impact of paving the busway, Transportation Chair Molly McKay said. “We’re sure that more pollution will be caused in the wetlands than they are admitting,” McKay said. State environmental staff in May recommended the wetlands permit be approved, saying the busway would not lead to more flooding or other hazards. The Sierra Club has joined a growing list of critics who would rather keep the rail line for a train route from Waterbury to Hartford, McKay said.

Markley and Betts are organizing followers to speak against the project at next week’s DOT session. Statements at the environmental hearing will be confined to those that relate to the wetlands permit, DEEP spokesman Dennis Schain said. If the permit is approved, Markley said, opponents will continue their fight against the busway. He and Betts have asked to John Boehner, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, to block federal funding for the project. “At a moment that they’re looking to cut spending, there’s hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money that they could save right now,” Markley said.

Markley said he would also consider proposing a bill in the next state legislative session to stop funding for the busway. “It’s a matter of getting the word out,” Markley said. “The final battle is when it’s over.”