Malloy being pressed to OK his first mass transit project

Lyle Wray

Lyle Wray

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is faced with his first major transportation policy decision: After a dozen years of planning, should the state proceed with its first true rapid-transit project, a $570 million Hartford-to-New Britain busway?

With a press conference today, environmentalists, regional planners, and business and labor representatives stepped up efforts to nudge Malloy to give his OK for a busway already approved for major federal funding.

“This is a project that can happen tomorrow,” said Rep. Tim O’Brien, D-New Britain. “It is a project that is ready to go–almost.”

The final call is Malloy’s.

The governor repeatedly has endorsed increasing the state’s investment in transportation infrastructure, especially mass transit, as a way to immediately produce construction jobs and eventually encourage economic development.

But advocates say that Malloy, who took office Jan. 5 and met with the busway’s advocates a week later, has neither embraced nor rejected the Hartford-to-New Britain project, which has generated opposition as it has drawn closer to construction.

“At the moment, the governor is focused on his budget, but would like to get everyone in a room – those who are for the busway, those who oppose the busway, and the DOT – and hash this out once and for all,” said Colleen Flanagan, his communication director.

Michael Nicastro, the president of the Greater Bristol Chamber of Commerce, launched an advertising campaign last fall opposing the project, calling it too expensive at an estimated $60 million a mile for the 9.4-mile busway.

The legislature’s transportation committee held a public hearing today on a bill that would transfer unexpended funds for the project to develop rail service from Waterbury to Hartford.

“What does this do for Bristol and Waterbury?” Nicastro said in an interview before he testified.

Peter E. Lynch, a retired railroad manager who says he reviewed the project on behalf of Sen. Eilieen Daily, D-Westbrook, said rail service on the same right-of-way would serve a broader area for less cost, since much of the rail infrastructure is in place. He also challenged assertions that federal funding would cover 80 percent of the cost of the busway.

Lyle Wray, the executive director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments, a regional planning agency, said a dedicated busway is considered state of the art for a medium-density region.

And with service every 5 to 10 minutes, Wray said, the project would be Connecticut’s first true rapid-transit system and build ridership in a way that limited rail service to Waterbury would not.

The 9.4-mile busway would run mostly along a rail right-of-way from Hartford to New Britain, bypassing a congested stretch of I-84 that slows to a crawl every morning and evening.

“It gets through the bottleneck,” Wray said.

The buses could continue on local roads beyond New Britain to Bristol and Waterbury. Local loops would connect to Central Connecticut State University in New Britain and the convention center in Hartford to the system, Wray said.

Jeff Merrow, the business manager of Laborers Local 661, said Malloy’s approval could quickly generate 900 jobs for a hard-hit construction industry.

“We are hurting,” he said.

Bill Millerick, president of the New Britain Chamber of Commerce, and Gerry Amodio of the New Britain Downtown District, said rapid transit to Hartford would open downtown New Britain to housing and other development.

Mayors Pedro Segarra of Hartford and Tim Stewart of New Britain are boosters of the project. With little notice, the town council of Newington voted recently to oppose the project, which passes through that town and West Hartford.

But opponents are urging Malloy to review the project in the context of how it complements or conflicts with the rehabilitation of the I-84 viaduct, a 4,000-feet-long raised section of highway near Aetna in Hartford that needs to be rebuilt. It is adjacent to the busway route.

“This simplies the rehabiliation of I-94, because the busway would not be there,” Lynch said in tesimony prepared for the public hearing.

Wray said that BRTs, or bus rapid transit, are cheaper to build and maintain than rail and are more flexible. They also would complement the high-speed rail contemplated for the Boston to Washington corridor, with an inland route passing through Springfield, Hartford, New Haven and on to New York.

The push for high-speed rail, which has picked up support from congressional Republicans who see the Northeast as, perhaps, the only region where rail eventually could be economical, is welcome, but it is a decade away, Wray said.

Transit projects typically take 14 years from proposal to completion. If Malloy gives his approval, the busway would fall within that time frame, he said.

Wray said he and other advocates are frustrated that New Englanders seem adept at fantasizing about mass transit projects, but flinch making the commitment to construction.

“This is a no-brainer,” Wray said. “This is not a monorail to Enfield.”