NEW BRITAIN — With unemployment in the construction trades topping 30 percent, it was easy to round up a crowd Thursday night to stand behind the controversial Hartford-to-New Britain Busway, a $567 million project that could mean 4,100 construction jobs, beginning this fall.
“We are ready to build,” said Jeffrey Merrow, the business manager of Laborers Local 611, offering an easy applause line to burly construction workers, many wearing evidence of a bad economy: shiny hard hats and clean boots. “And the naysayers are just naysaying.”
To John G. Rowland, the radio talk host, the busway is reliable drive-time fodder, a 9.4-mile boondoggle costing a whopping $60 million a mile. But, as one speaker recalled, the project actually was conceived on his watch as governor, then shaped by the administration of his successor, M. Jodi Rell.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy gave his approval in June, essentially greenlighting a project that has been in the planning stages since 1997, when Rowland was a first-term governor. The state’s share is $96.4 million, plus an estimated annual operating subsidy of $7 million.
“You’ve got to give Gov. Malloy a lot of credit,” said Oz Griebel, a Republican candidate for governor in 2010. “The thing that’s been missing all this time is a gubernatorial push.”
Griebel, who runs the region’s biggest business group, the MetroHartford Alliance, stood with laborers, environmentalists, Democratic legislators and union leaders in support of a project he says is long overdue, as both an economic stimulus and an investment in the state’s transportation infrastructure.
Roy Occhiogrosso, the governor’s senior adviser, said he did not believe that the rally was a sign that the project was in political jeopardy, but rather an effort to make sure that supporters are just as vocal as opponents.
“Like so many other issues, it’s a jobs issue. For people who want to be put to work, and there are many of them, this is important,” said Roy Occhiogrosso, the governor’s senior adviser.
At an informational meeting that followed the outdoor rally on the Central Connecticut State University campus, a senior DOT official predicted final federal and environmental approvals will come in time for construction to begin this fall, with completion slated for August 2014.
To the senior staff at DOT, the busway is the state’s first venture in true rapid transit, an effort applauded by environmentalist and business groups as easing highway congestion and spinning off transit-oriented development. To organized labor, the project simply means jobs.
Lori J. Pelletier, the secretary-treasurer of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, said the project is an economic stimulus at a time when the federal government has seemingly given up on stimulus in favor of deficit reduction.
“The entire labor movement is behind this project,” she said.
After a long battle over state employee concessions, Malloy is hardly a popular figure in labor circles, but the construction trades are an exception.
“We have a governor in Connecticut who gets it,” Merrow shouted. “Dannel Malloy gets it.”
The biggest chunk of the federal funding, $269.7 million in so-called “New Starts” transit money, would be lost to Connecticut if the project does not go forward. Under federal rules, it could not be redirected to other state transportation projects.
Michael Sanders, the DOT’s public transit administrator, said the project began as a way to alleviate congestion on I-84 corridor to the west of Hartford, the region’s most heavily traveled commuter route. Alternatives included widening the highway and building light rail.
“The busway came in at the lowest cost,” he said.
Sanders said the 9.4-mile busway was the spine of larger regional bus network. It would function much like the MBTA trolley system in Boston, with special buses stopping at 11 stations every three minutes at peak times.
But many of the existing commuter buses that now crawl along I-84 west of Hartford would funnel into the busway, speeding past the region’s most congested stretch of highway, he said.
Other buses using the busway would ply feeder routes, connecting the UConn Health Center and Westfarms mall to the system. Using federal ridership models, the DOT expects a ridership of 16,000 riders.
Opponents have not given up on stopping the project.
State Sen. Joseph Markley, R-Southington, said in a telephone interview that opponents will fight the granting of environmental permits at a hearing next month. They also will continue to urge the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives to block funding.
“I’ll fight it by any means I can,” Markley said. “The whole project is a waste of money.”
At the informational hearing, another Republican legislator challenged Sander’s assertion that the remaining federal approvals are nearly certain, since the project was developed in close cooperation with federal transit authorities.
“I don’t share that confidence,” Rep. Whit Betts, R-Bristol, told Sanders, warning that that state could start the project and find itself without sufficient money for completion.
But Sanders replied that the federal officials either will approve the entire funding package – or nothing.
“It’s really all or nothing,” Sanders said. “If we don’t get the New Starts money, there’s not going to be a project.”