The busway is not as inevitable as it’s been sold [Bristol Observer]

February 24, 2012

Bristol Observer newspaper
Feb. 24, 2012

The 9-mile busway from New Britain to Hartford is a done deal.

That’s what we’ve been told.

We, at the Observer, have seen it that way.

Our colleagues at other media outlets have reported it as so. But State Rep. Whit Betts (R-Bristol) and Central Connecticut Chambers of Commerce president and CEO Michael Nicastro say hold your horses. That’s simply not the case.

The media has swallowed the Kool-Aid served up by the state Department of Transportation, our U.S. representatives, and the governor that said there was no stopping the busway… it’s a done deal. And it’s a good deal.

Sitting down with Betts and Nicastro at the Observer newsroom last week, however, we have had a chance to have the clouds cleared from our heads.

And we have come around to their way of thinking.

The busway is just a bad idea and should be shelved.

The busway, just as a reminder, is a nearly $600 million, 9-mile stretch of highway to be built between New Britain to Hartford, complete with stops, which will be dedicated solely to commuter busses. A portion of that money is coming from the federal government. The state has to cough up the rest. Proponents have argued that stepping away from free money we may never see again is a bad idea. And, oh yeah, the busway is a good idea. Earlier in the discussion, the busway was framed in a “busway vs. railroad” argument. The busway would go across the right of way now occupied by rail. Build the busway, the argument went, you make renovations and extensions of a rail line into Bristol and points beyond that much more expensive. If we take care of rail first, it would be cheaper and more

extensive than the busway.

These days, Nicastro and Betts have set aside the railroad argument (they haven’t abandoned the idea entirely just have taken the spotlight off of it). Instead, they are arguing against the busway from a purely economic and budgetary vantage. The feds are helping the state build the busway. But the state still has to come up with a share of the cost, $112 million to be exact. In addition, the state has to cough up the entire cost of the busway first and then the feds will reimburse it for the completed work. It’s not pay as you go. It’s finish the project than the feds will send the money back at their own leisurely pace. In addition, the state doesn’t get reimbursed for any of the interest they pay bondholders for the project. The state is compensated for just get the principal. Nicastro and Betts argue, since the state plans to spend the $100 million plus anyway, it should spend it on something more pressing than a busway of dubious value. Use the money to fix the existing roads and bridges in Connecticut. They argue the state’s roads and bridges are in disrepair due to budgetary neglect. They note, and it makes sense, we should use our tax dollars to fix things before there is a tragedy that forces us to take action.

The DOT has argued that we can’t walk away from the busway because we’ve already spent millions prepping for it. But Nicastro and Betts counter that it’s still cheaper to walk away from a bad idea than it is to go forth with something of questionable value.

Also, although the DOT has argued the busway is a done deal, Nicastro and Betts said that all of the state’s ducks are not in a row. There are some questions about the availability of some of the land needed for the busway proposal. This may mean the state will have to initiate eminent domain—a process that could take years to resolve. Also, not all of the rights of way have been secured. Furthermore, a housing project in New Britain, which was supposed to be a key selling point for the busway, has been dropped by the developer because it couldn’t get FHA funds.

Nicastro also noted that one of the selling points of the busway also doesn’t hold water if you look at the proposal. One of the points made in selling the busway is it would help get cars off the road along I-84 into Hartford. But Nicastro said, in the plans for the busway, the parking spot total for all of the bus stops along the busway totals a mere 350. That seems to mean that only 350 cars will be taken off the road. Supposedly, I-84 into Hartford sees 175,000 cars a day. The busway promises 4,000 to 5,000 riders a day. This means the plan hinges on getting riders who don’t own vehicles, who aren’t congesting the highways at the moment anyway.

In addition, if the plan’s purpose is to relieve traffic congestion, Nicastro pointed out the bus way as it goes through Newington is not a raised road. This means local traffic will have to cut across the busway. The busway traffic will get priority, which means local traffic going across the busway, is likely to back up.

To put things in perspective, think about how long you wait on Stafford Avenue at the intersection with Route 6, waiting behind cars trying to make a right hand turn. There will be no right on red onto the busway. So much for relieving traffic congestion.

So, the busway is not all it’s cracked up to be.

And it’s not as inevitable as the DOT has argued. And that’s where the public—and the readers of The Observer—come in to the picture.

Nicastro and Betts said they want the public to know that the busway is not inevitable. They still have the opportunity to raise a voice. They can speak up and say, no to the busway, and yes, to safer roads and bridges in the state of Connecticut.

Betts and Nicastro figure if the project becomes a hot potato, DOT and federal officials will prefer to drop it and focus their attention on less bothersome issues.

We’ve never really been a fan of the busway. But like many of you, because we believed there was no way out, we waved the white flag and said we’ll have to live with it.

However, if there is an opportunity to scuttle plans and redirect some of those funds to fixing the state’s roads and bridges (and if you’ve driving along our highways lately, things are pretty dicey out there), let’s do it.

Call your state legislators, call the governor, call U.S. Rep. John Larson and tell them, “Hell no.”

Let them know that these aren’t the times for Connecticut to build its own version of the Gravina Road Bridge, Alaska’s infamous “Road to Nowhere.”