In hindsight, Michael Sanders says, the state initially made a mistake in the heralding and marketing of a 9.4-mile, $570 million rapid-transit busway connecting New Britain to Hartford.
Folks took too narrow a view, the Department of Transportation's transit administrator said, of the relevance and potential impact of the dedicated roadway to run along I-84.
"We made a tactical error in calling this the New Britain-to-Hartford busway, because everyone got it into their mind that this was (only about) New Britain and Hartford,'' said the affable Sanders, now in his 20th year with DOT. "The reach of this is way more than just New Britain to Hartford."
The project is now officially branded as CTfastrak.
Sanders said folks in Waterbury and Manchester should also be encouraged about the busway because it will provide them transport options as well. Bus riders from those towns will be able to connect to various locales within the 10-station Hartford-New Britain corridor and beyond via CTfastrak.
Groundbreaking occurred two years ago. Two-thirds of the project is federally funded. It is scheduled to open next March with 45 new Wi-Fi compatible buses and the hiring of 120 drivers. Buses ranging in length from 30 feet to 60 feet long can seat 28 to 38 passengers, and 55 to 74 standing passengers. The CTfastrak starting point in New Britain is the East Main Street station. Last stop is Union Station in Hartford. From there, commuters can connect to other bus routes and even engage the Bradley Shuttle if they are heading to the airport.
The primary goal is to relieve rush hour congestion on I-84, along central Connecticut towns. CTfastrak riders traveling from Hartford to New Britain — and vice versa — will get to their destination in about 20 minutes. One-way trips are $1.50; express fares range from $2.70 to $5.15. Multi-day discount passes will also be sold. Students at Central Connecticut State University, Trinity College and Capital Community College will be eligible for a "U pass" for free rides during a semester. The buses will run 7 days a week, up to 21 hours a day. During rush hour, buses will arrive and depart on an average of every five minutes.
Talks of a rapid bus system began in the late 1990s. From 2007 to 2011, the federal government approved the project and the majority of the funding. But as times changed and technology advanced the project became ensnared in controversy. Some argued the project was a waste of taxpayer's dollars and would become more of a boondoggle than an economic boon.
Sanders, naturally, begs to differ. He points to successful similar busways in Pittsburgh and Ottawa (Ontario). He believes that once car drivers understand the reach, cost and convenience of riding the rapid bus system they will see the value in taking the bus — even if it's just for one day out of the week.
The DOT estimates that 3,500 state commuters use bus transportation daily — and that 70 percent have a car at home.
"Demand is out there," Sanders insists. "We don't expect I-84 to turn into a skating rink that you can just roll down with no traffic. We're not going to get everyone to ride on the bus. But if we can get them (to ride) one day a week, that saves them 20 percent of the cost of running their car.''
In addition to relieving traffic congestion, the busway is being touted as a project that will promote opportunity — for those to access work, school and entertainment without breaking the budget.
Another amenity of the CTfastrak project is a five-mile, multi-use trail, fenced in along the busway, for walking and bicycling. Sanders works closely with DOT's assistant district engineer John Dunham, who oversees construction of the system. It will be Sanders' job to manage the operation once it is built.
Fourteen contractors and more than 450 workers have labored on the project. Dunham said the biggest challenges have been disposing of the hazardous material on site and making sure there is seamless coordination between the project designers and builders.
Once the busway is rolling, DOT estimates it will eventually generate 16,000 rides daily and 4 million rides a year. There is no breakeven number to reach. The state will be responsible for about $10 million yearly in maintenance; 20 to 25 percent is expected to be offset by fare revenue.
DOT is also projecting a wide and diverse ridership — business people, students, hospital workers, senior citizens, those looking for weekend entertainment. With anticipation of the New Britain Rock Cats move to Hartford in 2016, CTfastrak will provide another option for fans to get to the 72 home games.
"This system is going to have a tremendous reach," Sanders insists. "People will have a lot of travel alternatives. You're not just dealing with only people going from New Britain to Hartford. … People are starting to realize that."n
Stan Simpson is host of "The Stan Simpson Show'' (www.Foxct.com/stan and Saturdays, 5:30 a.m., on FoxCT). His 'Faces in Business' column appears monthly.