NEW BRITAIN—Sen. Joseph Markley, R-Southington, questioned the environmental soundness of a $569 million, 9.4 mile rapid transit bus route project from New Britain to Hartford Wednesday night at a public hearing he requested regarding the plan’s inland wetlands permit.

Markley has been an outspoken critic of the project, for which $89 million has already been bonded by the state to start the project. In an effort to halt the construction, he filed a petition with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to call a public hearing on an inland wetland permit from the agency necessary to begin work.

That public hearing was held Wednesday evening at Central Connecticut State University.

Both the DEEP, which issues the permit, and the Department of Transportation, the agency that oversees the project, have given tentative approval to the plans. However Markley said DEEP should review the initial environmental impact study the recommendations are based on because they are outdated.

“It goes back a ways and we question the extent to which they’ve really taken into account the wetlands and the runoff that will be generating by paving this area,” he said.

Markley also wants to know whether the agency considered transportation alternatives. The dedicated bus route will be built on an abandoned rail right-of-way and buses are expected to operate on three- to six-minute intervals from 5 a.m. until 1 a.m. He said it makes more sense from an environmental standpoint to restore the train service instead.

“I feel like if we’re going to make an investment on this, let’s make an investment on trains, which are cheaper and would provide a linked service that isn’t sort of a dead end on both ends,” he said.

Molly McKay, the transportation chair of the Connecticut Sierra Club, agreed. Like Markley, McKay attended the hearing as an intervening party. She said the abandoned rail lines should be restored and connected with running Amtrak lines.

“We’re going to need more tracks in the future and this is going to inhibit the future of rail in the state of Connecticut,” she said.

Not everyone thought increased rail service was a better option. David Kooris, vice president of the Regional Plan Association, spoke in support of the project and advocated its environmental approach.

“A frequent and reliable bus beats a rare train any day in getting drivers to choose more environmentally friendly alternatives to the car,” he said.

The benefits the busway will offer far outweigh the impact it will have on the wetlands it effects, he said. The Transportation Department’s mitigation plan actually positively impacts the environment, he said.

That plan calls for the creation of a wetlands mitigation area over 8.5 acres in size, on an existing DOT right-of-way off of Interstate 84. Existing wetlands will also be enhanced by slope stabilization and plant seeding, according to the DEEP.

The project is expected to affect about 2.11 acres of inland wetlands and 7,108 linear feet of watercourses and waters in the state. Much of the affected linear feet are man-made ditches that run along the rail tracks where water collects and have little environmental impact, the department said.

In a presentation before the public hearing the DEEP stood by its approval of the plans.

Because the busway is located in a developed area, all the wetlands affected have been modified or previously impacted by urbanization and construction, said Danielle Missell an environmental analyst and one of the DEEP staff members who signed off on the permit.

“My opinion of the wetland impact within the project area is the project proposed by DOT will not result in a loss of high quality wetland function,” she said.

Several environmental groups also voiced support of the busway during the hearing. Charles J. Rothenberger, a staff attorney for the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, said the plans strike an appropriate balance between allowing a major infrastructure construction project and protecting the wetlands.

Rothenberger agreed that the highly urbanized area has already been disrupted by construction.

“Moreover, the applicant has developed an extensive mitigation plan through which it proposes to create a contiguous wetlands system with the intention of enhancing wetland functions and providing greater ecological value than currently exists in this urbanized corridor,” he said.
 
The project could also cut down on traffic and result in less harmful emissions in the air, he said.

The public hearing was only one step in DEEP’s review of the permit. Markley said that on Friday morning at DEEP headquarters he and other opponents of the busway will make their case to the department as to why the environmental impact study was inadequate.

Ultimately Janice Deshais, the department’s adjudicator for the permit, will make a recommendation to DEEP Commissioner Dan Esty. He will have the final say on whether the DOT receives the permit.

Regardless of what Esty decides, Markley vowed to continue to oppose the busway.

“We’re going to keep fighting it by every avenue,” he said.

The federal government is looking for money to fund infrastructure repair necessitated by recent storm damage from Tropical Storm Irene, he said. He said will be urging them to use money earmarked for the busway to fund the repairs.

“I think the average person in Connecticut looks at this and says, $600 million for a nine mile busway doesn’t make sense and the destruction we just saw with the hurricane, to my mind, only reinforces that,” he said.