When the roof of the family home has a leak, few people react by putting in a pool. But that is roughly what Gov. Dannel Malloy committed the state to do this week as he gave final authorization for the 9.4 mile, $567 million Hartford-to-New Britain busway. It will receive funding while many of the state’s traffic trouble spots go unaddressed.

Last week the Hartford Courant highlighted the state’s worst roads as calculated by the number of traffic accidents per year.  The dubious distinction of Worst Road went to Middletown’s Rt.9/Rt.17/Rt. 66 corridor, the site for an accident at the rate of one every three days. Over a half a million people live in the impacted area – or about one in seven Connecticut residents. In their November 2007 report on the issue, the Connecticut Department of Transportation (DOT) described the problems this way:

A number of conditions or dynamics that ultimately define the operational efficiency of the transportation system in the study area are readily identifiable.  These system deficiencies have a cumulative degrading effect on area-wide traffic operations. 

Though long on the state’s radar, the Department of Transportation cited a lack of money for its failure to make fixes. The DOT’s Major Long Term Unfundable Initiatives list suggests that the project’s final cost is yet to be determined but it includes a ballpark figure of between $300 million and $400 million to fix the issue. Accounting for the cost overruns and mishaps that usually characterize projects of this scale, its true price tag is likely to be in the $500-600 million range – or about one busway.

As it should, the Unfundables lists reads like a Who’s Who of the state’s transportation headaches. It also tells jokes, describing the costs of expanding I-84 from Waterbury to the NY state line and a future expansion of I-95 from Branford to Rhode Island only as “TBD – billions”. The replacement of the Aetna Viaduct, the source of much of Hartford’s balkanization, is ballparked at between $1 and $2 billion. The cost for doing the entire list will be something in excess of $10 billion.

There is no doubt that Hartford’s transportation system has its dysfunctions (though Nutmeggers that commute via I-95 would probably be happy to trade Hartford’s gridlock for that in Fairfield County). The reason that Hartford is Hartford is because of the Connecticut River, but the whiz kids that built I-91 separated the city from its lifeblood by at least six lanes of asphalt, jersey barriers, and steel.

The failure to complete the circumferential around the capital city means that three of the state’s major thoroughfares, I-91, I-84, and Route 2, intersect right in the middle of the city. One hiccup on any part of the highway system can translate to hours of gridlock. If the busway’s advocates are right, it will have some positive impact on these issues.

It is equally true though that getting Americans out of their cars and into mass transit is a dream held by a small but hardy band of social engineers, including many busway proponents. A buses-only highway might not be as gratifying as commuter rail or culturally iconic like a subway, but at least it is something. If every place was like New York City, every place would be quite a bit better – or so the thinking goes.

With billions of dollars in must-do projects, amenities like the busway should take a back seat to addressing the state’s worst roads. If your neighbor put in that pool instead of fixing the roof, it would seem foolish. But when the state does a similar thing, its government.

Heath W. Fahle is the Policy Director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy and a former Executive Director of the Connecticut Republican Party. Contact Heath about this article by visiting www.heathwfahle.com