State senators clashed sharply Thursday over whether the controversial busway between New Britain and Hartford is a brilliant transportation project or a potentially costly white elephant.
After nearly four hours of debate, the Senate voted 19 to 15 to reject a Republican de-funding amendment – thus paving the way for the busway to move forward.
The Senate also voted 22 to 14 in favor of permitting electronic tolls on Route 11 in southeastern Connecticut in order to pay for the eight-mile extension of the highway from Salem to Interstate 95 at the border of East Lyme and Waterford.
The 9.4-mile busway has been pushed by Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy as a job-creator that would relieve highway congestion, but it has been blasted by Republicans as a wasteful boondoggle, a heavily subsidized government project, and an ill-conceived road to nowhere.
The buses would run on a dedicated, bus-only roadway from downtown New Britain, through Newington and West Hartford, before ending at Union Station in Hartford. Supporters say it will cost relatively little for the state at $112 million because 80 percent of the $567 million total costs will be paid by the federal government. Overall, it will cost about $60 million per mile.
An official groundbreaking is expected next month, and the long-delayed busway could begin operating in late 2014 if everything goes as planned.
“I think it’s irresponsible for us, whatever the political pressures that are on us” to spend money on the busway, said Sen. Joseph Markley, a conservative Republican from Southington who is the chief opponent. ”People may say, it’s federal money. … Insofar that it runs over price, we are responsible for every single dollar. … All of that money is our money.”
The debate focused on Markley’s amendment to slash funding for the 11-stop busway and redistribute the money for other purposes. He said that the state has huge transportation needs in all areas of the state, noting that six of the seven bridges in Stamford are structurally deficient. Overall, 30 Connecticut bridges “are rated below the Minnesota bridge” that collapsed several years ago, Markley said.
During the middle of the lengthy debate, Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney abruptly called for a time-0ut and a Democratic caucus as insiders were unsure whether the Democrats had enough votes to defeat Markley’s amendment. Both Republicans and Democrats said there was definite uncertainty over whether the Democrats could defeat the Republican amendment because some conservative Democratic senators were in favor of having money diverted to their districts in order to repair ailing infrastructure. But Democrats were assured that they had the votes, and the debate resumed more than an hour later.
The vote was relatively close at 19 to 15 with two Democrats absent and Democrat Paul Doyle of Wethersfield joining with Republicans against the busway.
The debate on the amendment lasted for much of the day, and a Democrat said he felt that the issue was hijacked because the underlying bill focused on Route 11 and not the busway. After the busway debate was finished, senators then clashed over whether the state could allow the installation of electronic tolls to collect money on the highway.
“The completition of Route 11 is not just a public safety issue. It’s an economic development issue,” said Sen. Andrea Stillman, a Waterford Democrat. “This possible tool is one we should look at.”
On the busway, Markley pushed for a roll call vote on the matter as a standalone project, which in the past has been part of a much larger legislative package.
The $567 million busway would generate an estimated 900 construction jobs for the workers who would build it over three years. The estimated subsidy for operating costs is $12 million per year, and after 10 years, that total would rise to an annual subsidy of about $22 million, Markley said. About 100 jobs would be created to operate the buses. The $567 million cost includes $300 million to build the busway, plus the costs of purchasing the buses.
Nearly $90 million has already been spent on land acquisition along the proposed 9.4-mile route. Six major contracts have already been signed, and construction is expected to begin soon.
Proponents say it will have 16,000 daily rides – meaning 8,000 people making round trips between the two cities. But the opponents are highly skeptical of the ridership projections.
Democrats said the project would have ancillary benefits, spilling over into different towns along the way. Sen. Theresa B. Gerratana, a New Britain Democrat, said there are plans for a $35 million mixed-use development near the busway in her hometown.
“This is indeed what I believe is the future of our region, the future for our children,” she said. “If you drive I-84 every morning to Hartford every day, as I do, you see the congestion and the pollution.”
But Senate Republican leader John McKinney of Fairfield said that traffic congestion is far worse in lower Fairfield County, adding that the busway would not even be on his list of the Top 10 needed projects statewide.
The well-documented congestion on Interstate 95 “makes the traffic on I-84 look like a walk in the park,” he said. “The issue is: is this the right priority for spending in Connecticut?”
Currently, there is bus service between New Britain and Hartford, and it costs $1.25 for a round-trip ride. Now, there are 11,000 rides per day, and that number is projected to increase to 16,000 rides per day. The buses will be running 21 hours a day – from 4:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m.
“We have a chance here to move ahead – to show some vision,” said Sen. Gary LeBeau, an East Hartford Democrat. “The density will grow around the rail line. … It’s a bargain. It is time for us to get this job done.”
Sen. Andrew Maynard, the Democratic proponent of the underlying bill on completing the Route 11 highway to Interstate 95 in southeastern Connecticut, said he felt like a passenger who had been hijacked because the busway debate was clearly overshadowing the Route 11 discussion.
Sen. Andrea Stillman, a Waterford Democrat, agreed with Maynard and thanked him for “doing his homework” on the project.
“We will be thought as a state that is so fickle that it can’t make up its mind what it wants to do,” said Stillman, adding that the state should not turn down millions of dollars in federal money. “I’m very concerned about the message this sends to the federal highway administration.”
“The busway’s existence will help grow jobs,” she said.
Sen. Beth Bye, a West Hartford Democrat, agreed.
“The bus has left the station, and it’s time to move forward,” Bye said.
Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams said that investment in transportation had built the nation, citing the intercontinental railroad. He said there has “always been opposition” to new transportation projects, but the lessons of history show that transportation can provide economic growth.
Throughout the early part of the debate, Markley dominated the discussion as he answered questions about his amendment.
“I never was on it when people had to stand, either,” Markley said of the current twice-per-hour trips that run generally now during business hours. Saying he lived in Europe for years without a car, Markley said that train service is the preferred manner of transportation.
The route would increase from 2 buses per hour to 20 buses per hour – a ten-fold increase.
Markley calculates the cost at $1,000 per inch, while others had different estimates of about $10,000 per foot.
“We’re going to find ourselves with a boondoggle on our hands,” said Sen. John Kissel, an Enfield Republican with 20 years’ experience in the Senate. “There is not one person that I have met that supports the busway project.”
Sen. Len Suzio, a Meriden Republican, was highly skeptical of the project and its costs.
“Are we going to be paving the busway with something like gold instead of tar or asphalt?” Suzio asked on the Senate floor. “In a day of fiscal austerity, it’s important to prioritize our public projects. … It just seems ludicrous that we would be spending that kind of money. … There are many more projects that could benefit far more people.”
Suzio said his daughter lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and she lives near a high-speed train that runs between Alburquerque and Santa Fe.
“We found out there was four hours between train boardings,” Suzio said, telling the tale of visiting his daughter. “It turns out it was a tremendous waste of taxpayers’ money.”
But Sen. Steve Cassano, a Manchester Democrat, said the busway has been in the works since 1996 – allowing the costs to almost double because of all the delays during various administrations. He said the amendment was “scary” because it would take money that was allocated to the busway and send it in other directions.
“We will never had a project funded if that’s the way we’re going to do business in the state of Connecticut,” Cassano said on the Senate floor. “You can’t take that away and give it to someone else in good faith.”
Pittsburgh and St. Louis have looked at light rail, he said.
Some of the biggest beneficiaries of the busway will be students going to Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, he said. “It’s efficient and effective,” he said.
Sen. L. Scott Frantz, a Greenwich Republican, said that the state has at least seven bridges that are more than 100 years old – and thousands of bridges have far exceeded their lifespans. He said that the money could be better spent by widening Interstate 84 in certain areas in New Britain and Hartford to unclog the traffic jams.
He noted the state’s failed and now-abandoned monorail system from Hartford to Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, saying that one of the few successful monorail systems in the entire nation is at DisneyWorld.
”Everybody is running out of money,” said Frantz, a fiscal conservative. “I know what it’s like to have a bridge come down. The Mianus River Bridge is practically in my backyard. … It was horrible.”
State Sen. Tony Guglielmo of Stafford Springs said, “This just lacks common sense. I hope it works. This is a freight train. We’re trying to slow it down. It’s going to happen. To spend $100 million of state money when we can’t even do the core function of the state.”
Guglielmo said that none of his constituents are in favor of the busway.
“They laugh about it. They think it’s ridiculous,” Guglielmo said. “I’m afraid we’re going to create another white elephant.”
Sen. Rob Kane, a Republican from Watertown, asked, “Who do we expect to get on and use this bus?”
“My personal expectation is it’s the same people who are [now] riding” between New Britain and Hartford, Markley said. “It has benefitted people of that immediate area who don’t have cars or need to make that trip.”
Kane responded, “At some point, you need to cut your losses. … I think this is the time to do it.”