As opening day for the CTfastrak approaches, state transportation and economic development officials are working to attract business and housing growth along the 9.4-mile corridor.
A busload of state officials toured the route Monday, stopping at several stations in Newington and West Hartford where they hope to encourage creation of nearby retail shops, apartment complexes and commercial office buildings.
In Newington, they look at the gleaming new shelters and benches at a stop almost next door to the derelict old National Welding building, a long-abandoned industrial hulk that is scheduled for demolition. It may be the premiere site along the busway for large-scale commercial development, planners say.
In downtown New Britain and at the Parkville and Elmwood stops, Lyle Wray envisions new residential development.
"If you build condos at Elmwood, it's just out the door to five or six restaurants. A lot of the amenities are already there, like they are in Parkville — food, shops, restaurants, a 7-minute trip to downtown," said Wray, a longtime busway advocate and executive director of the Capitol Regional Council of Governments.
Wray predicted that people living near the route will be drawn to the service, even if they're skeptical about it now.
"There are 40 Bus Rapid Transit systems in North America, and they're all successful. We're not going to be the one that messes it up," Wray said. "People who aren't used to transit will become used to it. It was that way in Lane County, Oregon and Apple Valley, Minnesota. They had suburbanites who weren't used to buses, and their BRTs are wildly successful."
Transportation Commissioner James Redeker told a crowd outside the state Capitol that the bus-only highway to New Britain is about more than moving people quickly between points: It's also a way to generate development centered around transit stops.
"Transit-oriented development has the potential to create economic growth, supply the much-needed workforce housing, reduce transportation costs for Connecticut families and help retain our young professionals who choose to leave the state for other areas that have already embraced TOD-style communities and public transportation investments," Redeker said.
Redeker's staff gave a tour of representatives from the state housing finance authority, the office of policy and management, and the departments of housing, economic and community development, energy, and environmental protection. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has said he wants all of them working toward fostering growth along the route.
The busway, scheduled to open in 2015, will have frequent shuttles from downtown New Britain through Newington and West Hartford to downtown Hartford. Buses are expected to make far better than average time because they'll be on a protected roadway free of other traffic and mostly free of traffic lights. The system also will have routes to Waterbury, Cheshire, Southington, Bristol, Plainville and Manchester; they'll use regular highways after leaving the busway.
Buses will have Wifi, GPS tracking so riders can know where the next bus is, and station signs announcing the next arriving bus. The system will be run by CT Transit with a new fleet of hybrid diesel-electric buses.
State Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington, told reporters at the Capitol that it's premature to believe CTfastrak is a success.
"For a project that epitomizes government waste with no return on investment in sight, it's a little early for a victory lap," he said.
Markley has been an outspoken opponent of the busway in the past few years, saying its budget could have been used for more pressing needs. Most of the rest of the opposition to the busway faded in the past two years, though, as contractors steadily made progress toward completing the project.
The vast majority of the route is paved, all bridges are in place, drainage is largely completed and many of the stations are complete or nearly complete. The stretch in Hartford is still in heavy construction, and officials want to wrap that up so drivers can begin training on the new route this fall. The opening is scheduled for March.