Everyone seems to hate the Hartford-New Britain busway. Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington, wanders from town to town ranting about it, but he’s not alone in thinking it’s overpriced, unnecessary and a poor substitute for a rail line. Given the amount of opposition, it’s amazing that the busway has made it as far as it has.
But here’s the thing: we need it. When my family moved to Connecticut more than three decades ago, there were only a few useful ways to get around greater Hartford: you could fight your way through the bus system, or you could drive yourself. The few other options took more money and effort than it was worth. We tried an experiment where I took the train back and forth to school in Windsor, but Amtrak’s high fares meant that it quickly got pricey ($7 one way from Berlin to Windsor in 1994? Really?), so we gave up. Over the years there were sometimes ideas for rapid transit options, like the Griffin Line light rail that would have run from Union Station in downtown Hartford out to Bradley Airport, but none of them ever stuck. In thirty years, not all that much has changed.
Over a million people live in Greater Hartford, but ways to connect them by anything other than a paved road has been very difficult to come by since the old rail and streetcar lines vanished in the 1960s. Halting, painfully slow progress has been made on a commuter rail line along the Amtrak right-of-way and there’s still some preliminary talk of rail connecting Waterbury and Hartford, but in all this time there’s only one rapid transit project that’s come anywhere close to being real: the much-maligned busway between Hartford and New Britain.
We need the busway for so many reasons. New Britain and Hartford and the towns between could use the quick and efficient link, as anyone who has traveled on I-84 during rush hour will know. It’s a good idea to connect New Britain with Union Station’s transportation hub, and eventually to commuter rail when that finally starts running. This busway could be the first of many, some of which might even run into the transit desert north of Hartford. There will be paved paths for pedestrians and cyclists, a welcome improvement. Also, a dedicated line has a sense of permanence, and has the potential to have an economic impact on the areas around the stations. The busway will also put people to work in Connecticut as soon as construction begins, which will hopefully be soon. But the major thing that the busway will do for us is demonstrate that yes, mass transit in Greater Hartford is possible. We really can do big, forward-looking projects; we can start to change something substantial about this place.
I feel the same way about the moon shot dream that is Connecticut Whale owner Howard Baldwin’s plans to renovate the XL Center and bring the NHL back to the city. His plans would upgrade the aging coliseum into something resembling a modern arena, but would also re-imagine the streetscape surrounding the building. It might result in the NHL coming back to Hartford at some point during the next decade (which may be less far-fetched than we think) or it might not, but there is no question that a modern arena in the middle of downtown would be a plus. It may even be a vital piece of our economy. Both the busway and the proposed XL Center renovations are potential economic engines and foundational pieces of larger dreams. There shouldn’t be a debate about which one is better, or which we should have. We should do the unthinkable (for us) and try to have two dreams at the same time, or realize that both projects are part of the same dream.
The busway is coming. Following a signing ceremony at CCSU on Monday, federal money will be turned over to the state and DOT will start putting the work out to bid. Yes, it costs money, but progress often doesn’t come cheap. The busway may never be cost-effective, but if it serves as a way to jump-start more transit development in Greater Hartford, then it will be worth every penny. State leaders, including Gov. Malloy, have weathered a storm of controversy over the busway, and are to be commended for pushing forward despite it all. They shouldn’t be discouraged, but emboldened. Let’s keep moving forward on transit, let’s find a way to fund the XL Center renovations, and let’s do all we can to create the Connecticut we want to see.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of CTLocalPolitics and an author. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.