Busway sparks new interest in transit in Connecticut

By Chris McCahill

Connecticut’s new bus rapid transit system, CTfastrak, has been operating for two months and is already exceeding its projected ridership numbers. Despite being highly controversial, largely because of escalating costs, the system appears to be attracting new riders and drawing new attention to the potential benefits of future transit investments throughout the region.

Transit advocates and opponents have both been critical of the project. The 9.4-mile busway between Hartford and New Britain was originally estimated to cost $75 million in 1999, which was $20 million less than the cost of other rail alternatives. That price tag grew to $342 million by the time construction began in 2012, and then to $647 million by completion. Some critics have argued that the money would be better spent on other projects, including other transit options. The project also stirred up opposition when it forced the closure of important street connections in downtown Hartford.

Nonetheless, the new service now carries around 7,000 new riders each day, exceeding forecasts by nearly 3,000 riders. It has shortened travel times considerably for some transit commuters and offers an attractive alternative for those who typically drive (including late night bar crowds). Civil engineering students at the University of Connecticut studied the new system and documented residents’ first impressions for a short film, available online.

In a region where only three percent of workers commute by transit, according to recent Census data, interest in the busway marks what could be an important shift in public perception of transit. Moreover, a planned commuter rail line connecting New Haven, Hartford, and Springfield, Mass., will improve transit options in the state even further.

Governor Dannel Malloy is currently pushing a $100 billion, 30-year transportation plan in which transit projects are considered essential to enhancing quality of life and improving economic activity in the state. “The early indicators of success of CTfastrak indicate that Connecticut residents are clamoring for a best-in-class transportation system now and in the long term,” he said.

The Capitol Region Council of Governments, in particular, has also emphasized the potential for CTfastrak to catalyze transit-oriented development in the region and recently launched a survey to gauge public interest in different design styles. Governor Malloy announced a $15 million fund to support TOD along the busway and the planned commuter rail line. This could be the most transformative aspect of fixed guideway transit in the state, but it will also require overcoming barriers such as local land use regulations, poor connections to some stations, particularly for people walking or on bicycles, and the positioning of some stations essentially as park-and-ride lots—some of which already reach capacity.

Chris McCahill is a Senior Associate at SSTI.