Christine Stuart photo

The New Britain-to-Hartford busway is the largest transit project the state has ever constructed from scratch. When it’s completed, it’s expected to deliver passengers from downtown New Britain to downtown Hartford in 17 minutes.

More than 500 construction workers are busy this summer building portions of the dedicated busway, bridges, and 10 new stations along the 9.4 mile route. The bus route will use Union Station in Hartford as its ending point, even though Michael Sanders, transit administrator for the Transportation Department, will tell you the busway doesn’t really end.

He described the system as more of a spider web than a linear express bus route with buses arriving every three to four minutes at the stations to take riders to their destinations.

“People think that it’s the creation of a route between New Britain and Hartford, but it will really benefit the entire region,” Sanders said.

The busway will give commuters an opportunity to reach locations beyond both Hartford and New Britain, Sanders explained Tuesday during a two-hour driving tour of some of the completed portions.

He said his department is trying to come up with a University of Connecticut route that will tie the soon to be constructed downtown Hartford campus to the UConn Health Center in Farmington. It will also offer express bus service from Cheshire, Southington, and Waterbury, and limited local stop rides from Bristol to Hartford.

Portions of the 9.4 miles stretch are scenic, while others highlight dilapidated buildings like the National Welding factory in Newington, which is languishing as a hazardous materials site. The town has received a $2 million brownfield grant to start planning clean-up efforts. Sanders said there are developers interested in the location, which is about 100 feet from the busway platforms.

“We’ve provided a trigger for a lot of economic development,” Sanders said.

But there are some who don’t believe economic development will follow.

Michael Nicastro, president and CEO of the Central Connecticut Chamber of Commerce, said Wednesday that a 2011 study by Robert Charles and Lesser Co. found Bus Rapid Transit systems do “not convey the economic or real estate upside that fixed rail networks do.”

Nicastro said construction boom has helped spark some economic activity, but there’s nothing that’s happened environmentally along the 9.4 miles stretch of dedicated roadway to suggest an economic boom is in the future of the corridor.

“It’s still going to be a hard pull to get people out of their cars and onto a bus,” Nicastro said. “We just don’t have the density of a Cleveland or Pittsburgh.”

Christine Stuart photo

Cleveland and Pittsburgh are home to bus rapid transit systems like the one being built in Connecticut.

“In order for this to be successful they’re going to have to have the ridership,” Nicastro said. The bus is expected to run 21 hours per day.

He said the demographic trends point to businesses and population migrating to Fairfield County and abandoning the central portion of the state.

The buses are projected to carry 16,000 daily riders in 2030, but one DOT engineer pointed out last month that even if there’s one rider, the buses “need to be there.”

Depending on how the success of the project is measured, in riders or economic activity, opinions will continue to vary as construction progresses.

Last summer, there was plenty of opposition to the project as the state sought to use eminent domain to take small portions of private property and then broke ground in an old rail right-of-way through a cemetery. Then there was the closing of Flower Street in Hartford.

Christine Stuart photo

Just last month, transportation officials got together with Hartford neighborhood organizations to come up with a design for the pedestrian bridge that will safely carry people over the busway and the adjacent Amtrak railway.

Transportation officials admit that opinions about the busway are still mixed, but they believe in the end, when the buses start running, the response from riders and neighbors will be positive.

Sanders pointed out that the rail lines have been there for decades so most of the property owners are used to a few trains whizzing by every day.

“Largely these neighborhoods are accustomed to the noise so nothing is shocking them,” he added.

Rich Symonds, a project manager with the Transportation Department, said the reaction to the busway has been “truly mixed.”

“You get some that don’t want to change. You get others who are pretty good to deal with,” he said noting that the department has spent years now doing outreach to the impacted communities.

When the project is completed the state will have spent about $567 million, most of which came from a federal grant for the project that was conceived more than a decade ago.

State officials broke ground on the project last May. It was at that time the New Britain-to-Hartford busway was rebranded CTFastrak.

Click here to watch a virtual tour of the busway. Below is our short video of one of the paved sections.