Outwardly, the two Republicans vying to unseat First District Congressman John Larson seem to have a lot in common. Both Ann Brickley, a Wethersfield business consultant and endorsed party nominee, and Mark Zydanowicz, the New Britain dairy owner challenging her in next Tuesday’s primary, are fiscally conservative, anti big government and think Larson is an entrenched, professional politician who needs to go. 

But it was each other, not their Democratic opponent, on which the two focused at a debate Thursday at Trinity College. During the sparsely attended, hour-long forum sponsored by the greater Hartford League of Women Voters and set to air today on CT-N, the pair attempted to distinguish their stands on issues ranging from public campaign financing to federal funding for education. It was the issue of air quality, and a local project aimed at improving it, on which the GOP rivals were most divided.

Zydanowicz called the nine-mile, $600 million bus way linking Hartford and New Britain a “fiscally irresponsible” idea that would simply replace one carbon-burning mode of transportation with another. Zydanowicz, a West Hartford resident and owner of Guida’s Milk and Ice Cream, favors scrapping that project and replacing it with rail lines that could carry people as well as freight.

“If it takes another eight years to find a viable solution then we need to do that,” he said, noting that one such a switch had already been made in San Antonio, Texas. “My plan is not an 8-10 year plan, it’s a 50 year plan that could open up commerce in the Naugatuck Valley and elsewhere in the state and that opens up more opportunity for business.”

Brickley, a licensed engineer and former GE executive, defended the project, noting it was intended to get cars off I-84 at rush hour. Switching to rail at this point would involve an 8-10 year planning process, she said. Brickley also questioned the estimated million-dollar per- mile cost of the rail project quoted by Zydanowicz.  The actual cost associated with advancing his vision would be 70 times that, she said.

“We need to come up with the most effective solutions,” Brickley said.

Zydanowicz said the bus way would carry 4,000 people a month between New Britain and Hartford while a rail line would open up the whole central corridor of the state. The desired reduction in traffic could be accomplished by having those 4,000 people use the High Occupancy Vehicle lanes on I-84, he said.

Brickley pointed out that there is no HOV lane in that section of I-84 and building one has been ruled out as unfeasible.

On education, the two agreed it was crucially important but hedged when asked to comment on the $75 billion allocated for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan compared to $4 billion in funding for Race to the Top, a federal initiative aimed at improving schools and student performance.

Zydanowicz called education the foundation of society and acknowledged the failure of No Child Left Behind, the sweeping school improvement initiative unfurled under President George W. Bush. But the basis of education, he said, starts at home with parental responsibility and guidance.

Brickley said she supports initiatives and programs providing every student the opportunity to achieve at their highest level. The Race to the Top, she said, is a step in the right direction. When asked about the state’s two failed attempts to secure those funds to combat its stubborn gap in achievement, Brickley suggested electing more Republicans might help.

“The state is too blue,” said Brickley, who believes the funds tend to go to states with Democrats in peril of losing their seats.

Though Brickley won the party endorsement at the May nominating convention, Zydanowicz received 44 percent of the votes, well above the 15 percent required to mount a primary challenge. On Thursday, both touted their extensive business experience. Zydanowicz also cited his service in Iraq and the U.S.-Mexico border as a Captain in the Connecticut National Guard.

The two candidates were in lock step in their criticism of Larson’s four terms in office and cast themselves as independent- thinking outsiders committed to creating jobs, supporting small business and cutting government excess. Brickley called Larson an “entrenched incumbent” who perpetuates all that is wrong in Washington. Zydanowicz dismissed him as yet another self-interested career politician more concerned about getting reelected than in the needs of his constituents.

“It’s about who can beat John Larson,” he said in closing. “We have not had a representative in Congress from this district since 1956.”

The debate is scheduled to air today on CT-N. For exact times, see the CT-N website.