Support the busway

You think rush hour traffic is bad in Fairfield County on I-95 and the Merritt? Try driving on I-84 or I-91 into Hartford. That’s why the planned busway from New Britain to downtown Hartford makes such sense.

Yet, the project has been widely scorned and almost scuttled by rail advocates and lawmakers who would rather see rail service than buses. Even though I’m all about trains, this busway project makes sense.

But first, what is a “busway,” you ask? Let me explain:

A busway is a dedicated highway just for buses. In this case, it would run 9.4 miles from downtown Hartford to New Britain on an old railroad right-of-way. There would be 11 stations, each with plenty of parking like at a Metro-North station. So rather than be stuck in rush hour traffic on the interstates, you’d drive to a busway station and hop aboard for a high-speed ride to downtown.

For more distant commuters, at the end of the dedicated bus-only busway, the bus would enter the road system and head off into other towns and neighborhoods — something that trains cannot do — giving you a one-seat ride from home to work.

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) has had great success in other cities such as Ottawa, Bogota and Jakarta. In the Canadian capital, ridership grew so strong on one line that the buses were replaced with trolleys. But in all the BRT cities, bus traffic drew riders because it was removed from the congestion of car and truck-jammed highways and given its own roadway.

So why the opposition to the New Britain-to-Hartford project? Two reasons: Money and prejudice.

First, the busway has gone from $325 million to $600 million in cost. That’s typical for state Department of Transportation accounting, so nothing new here. But I think it’s worth $600 million, and better to build it now, in this economy, than to wait until it’s unaffordable. And $460 million of the project is federal money.

Pull the plug now on the project and the feds will never trust the state with a new funding application and we’ll be missing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

This project is visionary. It’s planning for the future, not fixing the neglect of the past (as we’ve been trying to do for a decade on Metro-North Railroad). It’s an investment in the Hartford area’s growth and, as I say, can easily be converted to or supplemented with light rail when traffic warrants.

Why not build a railroad and skip the bus step? Too expensive and not as flexible. And remember, this is coming from a huge rail fan. If a busway would cost $600 million, light rail would be easily twice that.

Which brings us to the second, and more serious, cause of opposition: Prejudice. Nobody likes buses. Trains are cool. Buses are for losers. People take Metro-North by choice, preferring it to driving their cars. But most people think of bus riders as indigents who don’t have cars, and who wants to sit next to one of “them”?

Designers have tried to make BRT systems look like trains, but the bus-hater prejudice is hard to overcome. I just wish that the opponents of this plan would be realistic about the true goals: Moving people in large numbers, fast and safely.

The busway achieves those goals. And I predict it will be a big success and prove its detractors wrong over time.

 

Jim Cameron has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years. He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA. You can reach him at [email protected] or trainweb.org/ct . For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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