The Future of Public Transportation

August 29, 2012

Reading the news lately, there has been an increased focus on the future of public transportation in our state. From the now infamous New Britain to Hartford busway to new plans for high-speed rail, these issues are important public policy decisions that will affect all of us – commuters and taxpayers alike. Public transit provides essential benefits to our community, including a reduction in traffic congestion and pollution, and sometimes the only means of transportation for seniors to visit the doctor or pick up groceries. However, if not properly vetted, these projects may ultimately become a waste of taxpayer dollars.

Earlier this month, state residents had the opportunity to weigh in on Amtrak’s new plan for the next generation of high-speed rail that will shorten the amount of time it takes to get from Washington, D.C. to both New York and Boston. At the public hearing in New Haven, officials from the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration joined members of the public to hear their thoughts and concerns regarding this project. Many believe it could positively impact economic development in our state and could stand to improve our quality of life.

Upgrading the Northeast Corridor (NEC) rail lines is expected to take 30 years and cost as much as $115 billion. Currently, the trip from New York to Boston takes 214 minutes. With a high-speed train traveling 220 miles per hour, the journey would be cut to 94 minutes. At this point, plans do not call for these trains to even make a stop in Connecticut. However, second-tier service with slower trains would make stops in Danbury, Waterbury and Hartford. It is a project that builds off of Amtrak’s recent success in attracting regional customers who choose to travel by rail rather than plane.

Meanwhile, the New Britain to Hartford busway continues to move forward with construction and additional scrutiny. As I have previously written, I do not believe the project is smart public policy. At a cost of $567 million, the 9.4 mile bus-only route will connect the two cities at a cost of about $912 per inch. Since we currently have bus service linking the cities, it does not appear that the project was necessary. Beyond construction costs, the annual state subsidy is expected to reach $20 million per year if a minimum of 14,000 passengers take the busway each day. However, if the number of passengers drops below this level, taxpayers could be on the line for much more.

How much does the state spend to operate and maintain our current bus and rail services? According to 2010 figures from the state Bureau of Public Transportation, the state’s bus services cost $189 million per year. These include CT Transit, Express Bus, Dial-a-Ride and others. Ticket revenue was $39 million and the state subsidy was $135 million. Likewise, rail service costs $380 million to operate each year with an $88 million state subsidy. Believe it or not, these services account for over 38 million passenger trips by bus and over 37 million trips by train.

Overall, the state has an essential role to provide public transportation services that can reduce traffic congestion on our highways, help contain urban sprawl and reduce our carbon emissions and other sources of pollution. However, we must also ensure that taxpayer funds are used responsibly on projects where we know that demand exists. We simply should not be using these finite resources to build projects where planners hope demand will develop. If you would like to share your comments on these plans for high-speed rail, I encourage you to visit the Federal Railroad Administration’s NEC Future website at