PLACE

My First Ride On The Busway Into Future

I've seen the future — I hope. I've been on the busway.

At the invitation of some folks from the state Department of Transportation, I took a ride (in a sturdy SUV) along much of the Hartford — New Britain busway route. If you are new to the area, the busway, now called CT fastrak, is a 9.4-mile road being built between the downtowns of New Britain and Hartford that will only be open to buses.

If all goes as planned, the busway will reduce travel times into the cities, lessen congestion on I-84, reduce carbon emissions, reduce the demand for parking and offer smart growth development opportunities around the stations. I've come to think that all of the above are essential if the Capital Region is to prosper.

One reason our economy is in the doldrums is the state's postwar pattern of development — low-density, auto-centric suburban sprawl — which created much of the traffic and sapped the economic vitality of our cities. When most workers drive to and from the cities by themselves to distant subdivisions, the interaction between smart people that generates new ideas and new business is greatly lessened.

But repopulate cities and make them interesting places, as we've seen in Stamford and are seeing in New Haven, and give urban workers a means to get to suburban jobs, and the urban economic machine cranks up again.

That's the idea here.

The busway has been under construction for about a year, and is 40 to 45 percent complete. The downtown New Britain station is well under way, which is drawing attention from developers. Downtown New Britain has good bones.

The busway is in varying stages of construction, so we were able to drive over parts of it; in other areas we had to circle around construction sites. What struck me almost immediately was how complicated the project is.

The busway is being built in the right-of-way of a long-abandoned secondary rail line from New Britain to Newington Junction, and then inside the main Amtrak right of way from there to Union Station in downtown Hartford. Some who criticized the project say they can't understand why it cost $567 million, when it's just putting a road in a rail right of way.

Would that it were that simple. Forgetting the 142 property acquisitions, utilities relocation, sound walls, stormwater management, etc., the construction team had to build or replace two bridges, 600 feet and 650 feet respectively — just to get out of New Britain. Among many surprises, woodchucks in a New Britain cemetery had to be relocated (and if they see their shadows it's six more weeks of construction).

The 4.4-mile section from New Britain to Newington has a multi-use trail alongside, and though it won't open for another 18 months, people are already sneaking onto the trail. People love bike trails. It's a shame they couldn't have shoehorned one into the Newington — Hartford leg; it would be tremendously well used.

Moving toward Newington, it's easy to see how the railroad served as an organizing principle. There are factories large and small along the line, some closed, some open and thriving. Get more businesses here and workers can use the busway to get to work. I've heard from critics I know will never use the busway, but workers who don't own cars, students at Central Connecticut State University and other schools, and some people who like the convenience and savings will.

From Newington to Hartford, many of the improvements — such as the Flatbush Avenue overpass in West Hartford — also benefit the new commuter rail service running from New Haven to Hartford to Springfield. Mike Sanders of the DOT told me that $100 million of the project cost was also related to rail improvement.

We got off the trail in Parkville in Hartford, workers were rebuilding the Capitol Avenue overpass. There's much left to do; resolving pedestrian and bike access at the controversial Flower Street crossing, moving a mile of railroad track to get the busway into Union Station and designing the downtown route so the buses can move expeditiously and not be tied up in car traffic.

But it's happening and it's important. Cities around the country are rebuilding themselves around transit. It's that or create more traffic.

Tom Condon can be reached at tcondon@courant.com.

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