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Updated: November 8, 2022

Controversial CTfastrak busway spurs New Britain transit-oriented development boom

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart.

The state’s $567-million, 9.4-mile CTfastrak busway debuted in 2015 with much anticipation and some controversy.

The 10-station line, which connects the cities of New Britain and Hartford with stops in West Hartford and Newington, drew criticism for its cost and some skepticism — particularly from Republican lawmakers — about its ability to maintain reasonable ridership numbers.

Beyond those issues, however, the bus line has offered significant economic development opportunities to communities that host CTfastrak stations.

West Hartford and New Britain have leveraged their bus lines with transit-oriented development, tapping into developers’ interest to build apartments and mixed-use properties near public transportation nodes that make it easier for residents to get around without a car.

Starting in 2016, New Britain — which has three CTfastrak stations, including one downtown —developed and has since completed a multiphase master plan, followed by an ongoing multiphase complete streets blueprint for city-wide projects.

The efforts have utilized more than $32 million in state and federal transportation grant money, along with more than $10 million in municipal investments, to build and repair infrastructure, spur transit-oriented economic development throughout downtown and improve quality of life in New Britain.

The local plans involved city officials not only retaining consultants and developers for the work, but gathering input from the main stakeholders — residents — to gauge what people of New Britain want to see in their city, Republican Mayor Erin Stewart said.

“We needed something that was totally New Britain-focused … so we made a plan that was completely New Britain,” she said.

The master plan looked at every individual property “parcel by parcel, and we had the opportunity to re-imagine what we could be because of mass transit,” she said. “And almost 10 years later, the transformation that we’ve seen and the amount of projects that we have seen come to fruition because we had that vision is incredible.”

Downtown projects include the mixed-use Columbus Commons development in 2019, with more than 80 residential units; 222 on Main, a “Parkville-style market” food hall called the Assembly Room with market-rate apartments above; and The Brit, a 120-unit apartment building under construction and set to open next fall.

“In the next three years alone, we are looking to add almost 400 (apartment) units downtown … and a lot of it is the result of the combination of the transit-oriented development planning coupled with the amount of infrastructure investments that we’ve made.”

West Hartford officials have focused on revamped zoning regulations to encourage development around its Elmwood and Flatbush CTfastrak stations.

West Hartford’s new transit-oriented development district allows a broader mix of uses, with an eye toward adjusting density, building higher, and creating more pedestrian-friendly infrastructure work.

One project already looking to take advantage of the new district is a proposed $34 million redevelopment of the former Puritan Furniture store property into a mixed-use apartment development.

Streetscape improvements

The key to TOD-related success, Stewart said, is recognizing that “people want to invest in cities that are investing in themselves.”

CTfastrak “absolutely” helped launch the municipal efforts, and it was “the main reason why we’ve been able to harness grant money and build the excitement around rethinking downtown New Britain.”

The city plans have spurred new sidewalks, walking paths, shops, restaurants and residential space, which contributed to a 3.8% grand list increase last year, and consistent growth over the past nine years, Stewart said.

And the new federal infrastructure bill means more funding is available to those with a vision and a drive.

“Our local city plan commission and our zoning and our city council, all wanted to be a part of this kind of visioning for our community… and I think a lot of what makes TOD successful, in my experience, is when you have a buy-in from your local elected officials, and you have active management from your chief elected official,” Stewart said. “If I had not taken a strong role in trying to push a lot of this development, I don’t think that it would have happened … because development doesn’t just happen, you have to make it happen.”

The city’s complete streets and master plan contained road dieting, streetscapes, pocket parks, trees and greenery, sidewalk improvements, cobblestones, bump outs and a roundabout.

To create a complete and robust transit-oriented development plan, visionaries have to see the whole picture.

“TOD is utilizing mass transit as your mode for increasing the interest around it,” Stewart said, and it can help encourage mixed-use development, establish neighborhood identity, protect the environment, create walking trails, preserve open space, add bike lanes to roads, reduce the number of cars on roads and highways and give people convenient access to all methods of public transportation and improving quality of life.

“We wouldn’t have seen all this if it weren’t for fastrak, it opened the doors to a lot of opportunities for grant money and development,” Stewart said.

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