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BUSWAY AND RAIL

Backers Say Busway And Rail Plans Are Much More Than Just Ways To Connect Cities

By DON STACOM

The Hartford Courant

January 3, 2010

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If I-84 was called "the Danbury-to-Union Expressway," would it be a boondoggle?

Advocates of mass transit say the answer to that question is important to understanding the cases for three big transportation proposals — a busway between New Britain and Hartford, high-speed rail from Springfield to New Haven, and perhaps, commuter trains linking Waterbury and Hartford.

Designed in the 1950s and built in the 1960s, I-84 was planned as an east-west route through the state, part of a regional network of highways connecting the entire Northeast. It's become one of Connecticut's busiest interstates, used by drivers from scores of communities traveling to points all across the state and beyond — mostly trips that have nothing to do with Danbury or tiny Union (pop. 753).

So when critics of the Springfield-to-New Haven high-speed rail plan ask who would bother riding a train between those cities, state Rep. David McCluskey, D- West Hartford, shakes his head.

"It's so much bigger than that — it's so much more. We really need a better name, a much better name," McCluskey said.

Transportation planners use the word corridor to emphasize that any highway, rail line or bus route will draw people from a wide radius, not just from the two end points. But debate over Connecticut's two major transit initiatives and one lesser-known plan still brings up opposition based on those end points: Who wants to go to Springfield, New Britain or Waterbury?

U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, a key promoter of high-speed and commuter rail on the Springfield-to-New Haven route, dubbed the project the "Tri-City Connector" early last year, and quickly switched to the "Tri-City Corridor." Neither name resounded with the public; mostly it's referred to as the Springfield-to-New Haven line.

But Wallingford, Windsor, Meriden and other communities along the route see it as much more than Springfield and New Haven. Those municipalities have been laying the groundwork for new business or housing development around their train stations, banking on the transit-oriented development trend that has propelled real estate values along light-rail and commuter-rail lines in other states.

Dodd and U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, both describe it as a potential game-changer for Connecticut's stagnant economy, a way to get traffic off congested I-91 and a convenient way to link central Connecticut commuters to communities along the heavily used Metro-North passenger-rail line.

Opponents, however, continue to raise the argument that the three core cities — Springfield, Hartford and New Haven — don't have enough jobs to justify commuter-train service.

"It's really about connecting central Connecticut and Hartford to New York and Boston," McCluskey said. "But the name is its downfall."

More Than 'Here To There'

Proponents of the 9.6-mile busway from central New Britain to Hartford's Union Station face the same problem.

At nearly every public forum about the plan, someone asks why taxpayers should spend $572 million to shuttle people between two distressed cities.

Mike Sanders, busway chief for the state Department of Transportation, patiently replies that the system will handle dozens of local buses from feeder routes through Southington, Cheshire, Bristol and other towns south, east and west of New Britain.

Also, passengers won't just be heading to Hartford or downtown New Britain. The system will offer connections to the University of Connecticut Health Center, Westfarms mall and other destinations.

Officials at Central Connecticut State University are major supporters of the busway plan, and believe that it will provide affordable, convenient access for thousands of students, including some from Windsor and other towns north of Hartford.

"We see this busway as key ... economically, socially and environmentally. It's very important to the state," Richard Bachoo, the university's chief administrative officer, told the General Assembly's transportation committee in November.

CCSU has more than 10,000 commuting students from more than 30 towns, said Bachoo, who predicted that daily ridership on the busway would exceed the state's projection of 15,000.

Even backers of a competing plan face the same challenge. When they argue that Connecticut should extend passenger rail service from Waterbury to Hartford rather than build a busway, skeptics counter that maybe a few dozen Hartford-area people a day would bother going to Waterbury.

Mike Nicastro, head of the Greater Bristol Chamber of Commerce, says that view overlooks Bristol, Plymouth, Plainville and New Britain, all of which would be served by the system. And residents of Farmington, Southington and a wide swath of other towns near the route would probably see it as a convenient way to get to Hartford or New York City, because Metro-North runs service from Waterbury to Grand Central Terminal.

Nicastro's brother, Rep. Frank Nicastro, D-Bristol, said that last point is a prime reason why restoring passenger service on the Waterbury tracks makes sense.

"People could take that train, say, from New Britain right through Waterbury to Bridgeport into New York City," Nicastro said.