Politics & Policy

The Bus to Nowhere

Who pays for a project isn’t the only problem when the feds get involved.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation is planning to build — with federal aid — a “Bus Rapid Transit” system on a 9.4-mile corridor between New Britain and Hartford.

For $567 million.

The busway will use the right-of-way of a 4.4-mile abandoned railroad that extends from New Britain to Newington. For the remaining five miles, it will run alongside an Amtrak railroad through Newington, West Hartford, and Hartford. By reserving the newly paved lanes for buses and giving them preference at traffic lights, the department hopes to offer a faster, cheaper commute for the over 50,000 people who travel among those cities daily. Buses from surrounding towns will also be able to use the lanes, relieving congestion on the car-choked Interstate 84.

All of which sounds perfectly reasonable — except the price. And that $567 million figure is only the latest estimate. When the department proposed the project in 1999, it forecast a cost of $75 million. By 2003, the forecast was $160 million. Then $337 million. Then $458 million. And now, $567 million.

New Starts, a Federal Transit Administration program that funds transportation projects across the country, has pledged $275 million for the project. The busway’s advocates argue that the feds made the department plan for all sorts of contingencies, which pushed up the price, but made the estimate more trustworthy. The project has been in the pipeline for twelve years, they add, so you can’t discount inflation.

But you can. Even if you revise the initial estimate to, say, $200 million, inflation brings the total in 2011 dollars to about $260 million. In other words, the original estimate wasn’t even in the ballpark.

And this project is pricier than its counterparts elsewhere. For instance, Pittsburgh spent $183 million between 1983 and 2003 on a 9.1-mile busway. That amounts to $20 million per mile. This project is three times as expensive: $60 million per mile.

As the costs have escalated, the projected benefits have dwindled. Currently, there are 11,000 daily boardings on the existing bus service between New Britain and Hartford. With the busway, the department hopes to increase that number to 16,000. Because a commuter usually boards a bus twice — once to go to work, a second time to return home — those 5,000 extra boardings translate roughly into 2,500 more people taking the bus. In 1999, however, the department predicted the busway would attract 8,800 new riders by 2020.

Even the imagined stations were spiffier back then. The original report envisaged that “the station itself must be enclosed, all weather, and secure, providing a comfortable waiting area. Rider conveniences such as coffee shops, news stands, cleaners, etc. will enhance the desirability of the transit service.” Now, a department fact sheet says the stations will consist of “shelters, benches, information displays and other amenities for passenger comfort and safety.” (One prediction that has held up is the travel-time difference. If the department goes ahead with the busway, it predicts the commute time from New Britain to Hartford will drop from 40 to 20 minutes.)

Still, the project’s advocates counsel Connecticut to plow forward. Over half the cost, or $342 million, relates to construction — 16 new or rehabilitated bridges, eleven stations, six parking lots — and 80 percent of the project’s funding will come from the federal government. Why should Nutmeggers give up that money?

True, the state will lose the $275 million provided by New Starts if it doesn’t build the busway. But the state is also planning to use over $113 million in federal transportation money it would have gotten anyway. And if the project has cost overruns — which isn’t out of the realm of possibility — the state will be stuck with the tab.

State senator Joe Markley, a Republican who opposes the busway, says the federal transportation money could be used on other projects. “We have an old rail line from Hartford to Waterbury that could be restored for $100 million,” Markley tells NRO. “I don’t know that I would spend that, but I sure would rather spend $100 million on that than $600 million on this busway.”

The opposition to the project reaches across party lines. In a June poll commissioned by the Yankee Institute, a libertarian think tank, 60 percent of Nutmeggers said they were against the proposal. “This isn’t about Republicans and Democrats,” says Mike Nicastro, CEO of the Central Connecticut Chambers of Commerce. “This is about what’s smart and what’s stupid.”

Every project faces obstacles, and state and federal bureaucrats have worked hard to get this one moving. But the New Britain–Hartford busway illustrates one of the problems with federal funding of local transportation projects: For accountability’s sake, the feds impose all kinds of regulations that slow down the project — sometimes so much that it outlives its need.

The more fundamental question is: Even if a bus-rapid-transit system from New Britain to Hartford is a good idea, why should people in Provo be paying for it?

— Brian Bolduc is a reporter for National Review Online.


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