Gov.-elect Dan Malloy has been busy over the past month since his close election victory, working to draw distinctions between himself and outgoing Gov. Jodi Rell. One of the most visible contrasts thus far has been Malloy’s two trips to Washington to advocate on behalf of Connecticut with federal agencies and officials, a journey Rell rarely made. One of Malloy’s top two priorities on his first visit to Washington as governor-elect was transportation, boosting my own hopes that Malloy will be a driving force in finally remaking our neglected public transit network.
That’s why I was worried this week to see Sen. Donald DeFronzo, D-New Britain, whose name has been coming up as a potential head of the Department of Transportation, proposing that the long-stalled Hartford-New Britain busway be either bumped down the priority list or eliminated altogether. The busway may not be the perfect solution, but the construction of a public transportation corridor between Hartford and New Britain should continue to be a priority.
DeFronzo has long opposed the busway in favor of a commuter rail line. I get that. In a perfect world, I’d like to see trains running there as well. In fact, much of the busway’s proposed path is currently a mostly abandoned stretch of tracks. I used to hike along the Newington stretch of that line as a kid twenty years ago, so it’s been sitting there for a very long time, doing very little. DeFronzo and Bristol lawmakers want to see a rail line connecting Hartford and Waterbury via New Britain and Bristol, potentially linking Hartford to the Metro North network. This is a great idea. But it isn’t happening now, and it won’t happen any time in the foreseeable future.
By contrast, federal funding for the busway will hopefully be approved by early 2011, and the project can go out to bid. That will put Connecticut companies and workers to work now, when it’s most needed, and the project could conceivably be finished within a couple of years instead of being stuck in the design and approval process for another decade. Officials in New Britain, including Mayor Timothy Stewart and CCSU president Jack Miller, among others, have said that the busway will be an economic boon to their city. A rail line would also likely provide that boost, but again, the potential problems and delays make it much less attractive.
Another argument against the busway is cost, but there is little to suggest that a rail line there would actually be cheaper in the long run. Significant upgrades would need to be made to track between Waterbury, New Britain and Berlin, where existing freight rail lines connect with the main Amtrak line to make them suitable for passenger rail, and stations would have to be constructed or upgraded.
I will also grudgingly admit that the flexibility of the busway is a positive aspect of the design. Plus, the project’s construction of multi-use trails alongside the busway’s road surface from New Britain to the Newington Junction station would be a boon for the whole region; the rail trails in the Farmington Valley are wonderful additions to the communities there, and busway trails would exist alongside public transit instead of replacing its infrastructure.
Lastly, the construction of the busway doesn’t mean that rail from Waterbury to Hartford is dead: much the opposite. The freight lines connecting Waterbury, Bristol and New Britain turn south at the busway’s New Britain terminus, connecting to Amtrak and the potential commuter rail lines in Berlin. A rail line could still be constructed here, existing side-by-side with the busway instead of replacing it. This future project should continue to be seriously studied, but it should not be pursued at the expense of the busway at this time.
Gov.-elect Malloy has a chance to oversee a radical remaking of public transportation in Greater Hartford. I’m hopeful that he will choose to press forward with a beneficial project that has the potential to put people on buses and off of congested I-84 within the next couple of years. I also hope that Sen. DeFronzo, should he become head of the DOT, will also support the busway’s construction, both for the sake of the people he represents and for the cause of moving public transportation in the region forward at long last.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner/author of CTLocalPolitics.com. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.