NEW BRITAIN — Unwilling to let opponents of the 9.4 mile, $567 million Hartford-to-New Britain busway control the dialogue, supporters of the transit project turned out in large numbers Thursday evening for an informational hearing.
Busloads of laborers with hard hats rallied with lawmakers in support of the project, which they said would give the construction industry a sorely needed economic boost. The state Department of Transportation estimates the project will create about 4,100 construction jobs and 100 permanent jobs once the project is completed.
“There’s a lot of naysayer’s out there saying this isn’t going to pay for itself,“ state Rep. Tony Guerrera, co-chairman of the legislature’s Transportation Committee, said at a rally before the hearing. “Show me one mass transit program out there that pays for itself. It’s about getting people from point A to point B and that’s what government does to help people.”
“We’re helping ourselves, we’re helping the industry, and we’re getting people back to work,” Guerrera said.
As the applause died down, Ralph Fabiano of Burlington shouted, “Who’s gonna pay for it?”
Supporters of the busway ignored the loud criticism and continued with the rally. But it was a question posed by opponents to state transportation officials later at the informational presentation.
The state will be picking up 20 percent of the cost or about $96 million. The rest will come from the various transportation funds controlled by the federal government. The fact that Connecticut hasn’t secured $267 million in a specific type of federal funding called “New Starts” only added to opponents’ frustration Thursday.
As they sat in a packed lecture hall on the Central Connecticut State University campus Thursday, opponents like Rep. Whit Betts, R-Bristol, wondered why state Transportation officials believed Congress would actually approve the funding with the current mood in Washington D.C.
“This is an expensive project and there’s no doubt about it, these are tough times,” Michael Sanders, the Department of Transportation Transit Administrator, said. “Republicans like to cut ribbons as much as Democrats and the New Starts project creates a lot of ribbon cuttings, and I don’t think anybody wants to go home next November saying they cut transportation funding 30 percent.”
Sanders said if the state doesn’t get that money then the project, which has been in the planning stages since at least 1999, won’t go forward.
“It’s not done until it’s done, but it’s either going to be done in the full amount or it’s not going to be done,” Sanders told the audience.
The busway will cost $11 million a year to operate and about $7 million a year in subsidies.
Sanders said that’s not an insignificant amount of money, but when compared with what it would cost to widen Interstate 84, which wouldn’t necessarily solve the problem, it’s the wisest investment the state can make.
“Again, we can justify the expense,” Sanders said.
But June Vitiello of Wolcott said the money will be coming from the taxpayers and she can’t see how the state or the federal government can justify $60 million a mile.
Vitiello said she did her homework on bus rapid transit projects across the country and found that 10 of them are less then $50 million, two are around $100 million, and two others are $200 million. So she said she has a hard time understanding how Connecticut’s is $567 million.
“Ours is the only one that’s more than $200 million,” Vitiello said. “Is it a gold plated busway? Is it a magic busway? Is it a busway to nowhere and what bad things will happen if we don’t build it?”
Sanders said it’s a lot easier to build in other parts of the country where you have six-lane arterial roads, rather than the winding roads. He said you can’t find the space to do it down Farmington Avenue.
The Hartford-to-New Britain busway will be built on an abandoned right-of-way and in an easement along a railroad right-of-way.
Brian Cunningham of the Department of Transportation said when they did the initial study they investigated all viable options, including road widening and light rail, but in the end the busway made the most sense and was the most cost effective.
Fabiano said Hartford and Washington are broke and can’t afford this project. While Sanders didn’t necessarily disagree, he said Fabiano was bringing up systemic issues that are related to more than just the busway project and can be dealt with in other ways.
“If they’re systemic issues, you need to deal with them on a much larger scale,” Sanders said. “If we can find a way to reinvent government that’s more cost effective, I don’t think anyone’s going to disagree with you.”
The busway’s main opponent, state Sen. Joseph Markley, R-Southington, was not in attendance Thursday evening, but his opposition to the project has been echoed and promoted by former Gov. John G. Rowland and his co-host on their afternoon talk radio program on WTIC.
However, supporters of the project question Rowland’s new-found opposition to the project.
State Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, who was the head of the Capitol Region Council of Government when the busway project was in its infancy, attempted to give the crowd a history lesson. He said he went with Rowland’s commissioner of transportation to visit similar rapid busway projects in Ottawa, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis.
“He went with the blessing of the governor,” Cassano said. “Gov. Rowland was building his seven pillars program and transportation was a critical part. Gov. Rowland’s position was dramatically different than primetime Mr. Rowland,” who is now a vocal critic of the project while he is on the air.
Cassano said the project makes more sense than rail and more sense than widening Interstate 84.
Supporters of the busway said the only vote that really counted in keeping this project going was Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s decision to move forward with it back in April. Malloy met with both supporters and opponents of the project before making a decision about whether the state should borrow the money to secure the federal funding.
“Connecticut has a track record of leaving federal funds on the table. I am unwilling to run the risk of losing additional federal funds,” Malloy said in April. “It is time to break with history. The timing is right to undertake this project. Taxpayers can get more transit for less money given the competitive bidding environment, and while it may not be a perfect project, it is the first step in creating a comprehensive multimodal transportation system in central Connecticut.”