Busway Changing The Landscape

Construction under the Harry Truman Overpass in New Britain is underway. (Richard Messina)

Behind the state Armory in Hartford, workers operate the backhoes and cranes that are carving a two-story retaining wall beside the Amtrak rail line.

Roughly nine miles away, more crews are preparing a new off-ramp from Route 72 up to New Britain's Truman Overpass.

In between runs a two-lane passageway of back-to-back-to-back job sites: The path of CTfastrak.

Fifteen years after transit planners first floated the idea of the New Britain-to-Hartford busway, the bulldozers and cement mixers have arrived. About 250 workers are digging drainage culverts, building embankments, demolishing old bridges and erecting new ones.

Between now and February 2015, the busway is expected to change the look of a dozen neighborhoods in its path by adding stations with parking lots and raising two new bridges. Such large-scale highway work hasn't been seen in central Connecticut in a generation, and it's getting plenty of reaction — cheers and complaints — from homeowners and merchants along the route.

"The younger generation is going to love us for what we're doing here," predicts Nick Augustino, owner of the East Side restaurant in New Britain. "People who work in Hartford can get there in 20 minutes instead of 45. And people in Hartford can say 'Let's go out for German,' they come here, have a few beers and get home safe on the bus."

In Newington, Dan Patriss is also a fan.

"If it's going to take all those cars off the road, I can't see how it's going to hurt," says Patriss, whose Chapman Street home is about 100 yards from where the Newington Junction station will be built. "But I feel for the guys across the street."

Indeed, a half-block away on Sumner Street, Louie and Chris Lombardo have a different view.

"We hate it, we hate it, oh my God we hate it," Chris Lombardo says.

And the Lombardos are not alone.

"I've been hearing 'bang, bang, bang' every morning," says Helen Mierzejewski, whose Flatbush Avenue home is near the jumbo pile-drivers that are putting down piers for a new bridge in West Hartford. "I'd just rather it not be here."

The architects of the bus-only route have heard it all over the years, and they say the real story will come when the buses start rolling.

"This will always be a unique project because of where you're going through — the development is already there," says Michael Sanders, the state Department of Transportation administrator in charge of the busway. "No other project is visible to so many people at so many points."

'Drastic Change'

Building a two-lane highway for buses over the path of a long-abandoned rail line would be simple near rural villages, but CTfastrak runs through some of central Connecticut's most densely built-up communities.

Most segments butt up against houses or businesses, and controversy arose in even the quietest spot: New Britain's Fairview Cemetery. Detractors warn of burial services interrupted by buses zooming down the 0.7-mile stretch through the middle of the graveyard. Sanders says the buses will be much quieter than the trains that most busway opponents had preferred.

Just north of the cemetery, newly completed concrete piers tower over Allen and East streets in front of the Papa's Dodge dealership. They'll carry the busway nearly 20 feet above the busy intersection, preventing the nightmare of a busway slicing through heavy traffic. The bridge is the kind of expense that explains why the $567-million busway is more complex and costly than simply paving over an old railbed, the DOT says.

The East Street work hasn't generated many complaints, unlike the new $18-million bridge that will raise West Hartford's Flatbush Avenue above the busway and the Amtrak line. Construction has made traffic in already heavily traveled area worse, says neighbor Alice Steves.

"The traffic is horrendous," Steves says. "It has changed the neighborhood drastically. I think they should have put it somewhere else."

Sanders predicts that neighbors and motorists alike will appreciate the new bridge, which eliminates the poorly located Amtrak grade crossing where rush-hour motorists occasionally get stranded on the tracks because of a nearby traffic signal.

Mierzejewski, though, worries that her property value will decline because of the busway.

"I'm not too happy. I'll never use it," she says. "I just never dreamed that it would come here."

Deborah Rivera, who rents a home on Flatbush, says the noise hasn't bothered her. But she criticizes the state Department of Transportation's public communications effort.

"I don't think any politician or official came to sit down with the homeowners and find out how they feel about it," Rivera says. "I don't think the homeowners around here have been given a fair look at how it's going to affect their lives. They've put a lot into this neighborhood; they're keeping this place up, and to be ignored — it's not fair."

Along New Britain's Cottage Place, homeowners whose yards are hard against the right of way are concerned about noise after the busway opens. Project Manager Michael Mendick says the DOT will install noise barriers for them.

In Newington, Chris and Lou Lombardo have lived in their Sumner Street duplex for 30 years and are so close to the route that the DOT had to buy 8 feet of their land. They complain that since crews removed trees, there is no buffer to construction noise or trains going by, and they say they fear crime, too.

"The crooks will have an easy way of getting here," Chris Lombardo says.

In sections of Hartford, the busway is more popular. Terra Moore, a city resident for seven years, says work at the soon-to-be-built Parkville station near her home hasn't been a problem.

"I've been dealing with the train, the construction and whatever else," she says. "The noise doesn't bother me."

Park Street resident Howard Fields predicts that the station will give the neighborhood a boost.

"I've seen the plans of what it would look like when it's finished, so I think it would make this area look better," Fields says. "It gives people another way to get around; there probably won't be as much traffic."

'Make It Work'

Since work began last spring, the busway route has become home to bulldozers, pile drivers, cement mixers, excavators and fleets of gravel-laden dump trucks. The jobs are split among three companies — Manafort Brothers Inc., Middlesex Corp. and a joint venture of Empire Paving and Schiavone Construction — and a fleet of subcontractors.

That's great news for Kevin Daly, 46, who began working on Empire's stretch of the busway in June. Before that, he hadn't worked since he was laid off from the Kleen Energy construction site in Middletown in October 2011. That was the longest he's been out of work in 27 years with the construction union, he says.

Daly is working on water drainage, sewers, erosion-control walls and excavation. The phase he's working on is supposed to last two years.

"That's what I'm praying to get out of it," he says.

Before getting picked for the busway crew, Daly was a month and a half from losing eligibility for the insurance that covers his wife and two sons.

Jeff Merrow, business manager for the Laborers Local 611 in New Britain, says that while the busway is good for his union members, he predicts it also will be popular with riders, especially after work planned for the I-84 viaduct in downtown Hartford begins to snarl traffic.

Exactly where the busway will drop buses in Hartford is still being worked out. The plan for years had been to use Union Station, and the Capitol Region Council of Governments wrote a detailed study of how to bolster residential and commercial development on nearby blocks. But the DOT now plans to bypass the historic train station, and instead merge buses onto an I-84 off-ramp so they can turn off at Asylum Street. Some will stop on Asylum, but most will continue on to Main Street to meet local connections, Sanders said.

Meanwhile, the DOT re-engineered the narrowest stretch of the Hartford right of way to eliminate a potential bottleneck. Until recently, designers thought a short section would accommodate just one lane, requiring CTfastrak buses to follow alternating one-way traffic patterns — slowing travel time and complicating the drivers' jobs. Sanders says a few mapping adjustments were enough to keep it at two full lanes, though.

The busway's course in Hartford is directly alongside the Amtrak tracks, and has created a surprising amount of upheaval. Residents of the Frog Hollow and Asylum Hill sections balked this summer at plans to shut Flower Street as way to eliminate an at-grade crossing. The DOT agreed to temporarily keep it open to pedestrian and bike traffic; it was permanently shut off access for vehicles on Dec. 4.

A block east, reconstruction of the Broad Street bridge over the busway has generated rush-hour traffic jams and gripes from commuters.

Promoting The Busway

Construction in Hartford has focused on overpasses so far, and most of the route itself is still gravel, washboard dirt or mud. By comparison, long stretches in New Britain have already gotten a first layer of asphalt, and crews are at the stage of installing drainage basin covers and hydroseeding embankments.

The DOT estimates that, as of early December, about 16 percent of the busway and stations have been done.

When construction ends, fresh economic development along the route is going to follow, says Nancy Lyon-Stadler, marketing director with Michael Baker Corp., one of the state's consultants.

Opponents say the busway won't attract the ridership or new business that the DOT envisions — roughly 16,000 riders a day by 2030, half of which are expected to be new bus riders, according to projections.

But communities on the line are already promoting it. Newington is working to attract developers to buy the sprawling National Welding brownfield, which is next to a busway station. New Britain is marketing downtown business locations with the promise of new foot traffic from the busway station.

"In Cleveland, the HealthLine [busway] cost $200 million, and we're hearing about economic benefits of $6 billion to $7 billion," Lyon-Stadler says. "In Connecticut, it's going to change the way people get around on a daily basis — it's going to make many places very accessible."

The East Side's Augustino is one of many business owners counting on that.

"I know the busway is coming, so I'm not going to be negative. I'm going to look for ways to make it work and see how it can benefit me," he says. "People who see this as a big waste of money don't really see what it's going to do."

Baby boomers won't embrace rapid transit buses quickly, but younger generations will be eager to skip the expense of cars and insurance, he predicts.

"They're going to say 'I can get to college by bicycling to the busway station,' or 'I can get to work in Hartford in 20 minutes without a car,'" Augustino says. "I've seen busways in other cities that work. And at the end of the line, there's a mecca of good restaurants."

Staff Writers Jenna Carlesso, Steven Goode and Mara Lee contributed to this story