Monday, August 08, 2005

Public Transportation Dos and Don'ts

Don't: the Busway

Connecticut often approaches public transportation in funny ways. We have high population density in Fairfield County and the Connecticut Valley, and we have a sprawling bus network and passable rail lines in each area. Yet the bus system is underfunded and ignored, and most people who aren't commuting to New York avoid trains.

So, several years ago, a genius at the DOT hit upon the bright idea of combining the worst features of both trains and buses into the Hartford-New Britain Busway. The idea was to create a corridor for the exclusive use of buses, mostly by tearing up existing train tracks in Hartford, West Hartford, Newington and New Britain, then paving over the right of way. Stations would be built at points along the route, and apparently then the revitalization fairy would bless the area around each with economic growth.

The busway would, in essence, combine the permanence and stability of a bus with the flexibility of a train. Trains and rail lines last. In comparison, a bus feels flimsy and transient. Buses don't inspire the economic confidence that trains do. However, people like that buses are easy to find and easy to catch. Unlike a train, the bus can take you right into your neighborhood. When there's a problem on one street, the bus can take another.

Not so on the busway. The stations for this project are difficult to get to and oddly placed, in some cases. Take a look: the "Cedar Street" station in Newington isn't located in the middle of a neighborhood at all. I know that area: it's a swamp next to a rotting abandoned factory. I suppose that the Stop&Shop is nearby (although it certainly isn't what I'd call close), but there isn't a house in range. Who would want to take the bus there?

Fortunately, the federal government is starting to catch on:

The project, a bus-only route running 9.6 miles between New Britain and Hartford, would launch in 2011 if all remains on schedule, state officials said. One key portion of that schedule: regaining the federal government's faith in Connecticut's ability to deliver what it promises.

Earlier this year, the FTA downgraded the $335 million project from "recommended" status to "not recommended." (Reitz)

The DOT is scrambling to keep the project alive.

Here's the question: Why tear up tracks for a bus line that functions like a light rail line when you could have, say, an actual light rail line?

Do: Ferry Service

It's heartening to see that people are starting to look towards Long Island Sound as a transportation corridor again.

A six-year $286.4 billion transportation bill approved by Congress Friday includes $10 million to build the first high-speed ferry terminals in the state in Bridgeport, Stamford and New Haven.

Advocates of ferry service said the funding is a long overdue move to use the Long Island Sound to help ease congestion on Interstate 95. (AP)

That's not a bad idea at all. Ferry services in other cities, such as Seattle, are an excellent alternative to busy highways. New York is already used to ferry services: expanding the network to include Connecticut is the right move to make.

Unfortunately, it probably won't go a long way towards reducing congestion. But we should be looking for ways to use our existing resources wisely, rather than spending a lot of money on projects that may not work at all.

Sources
Reitz, Stephanie. "State Wants Busway Project Back On Road." Hartford Courant 7 August 2005.
"Connecticut looks to the water to solve traffic congestion." Associated Press 8 August, 2005.

12 comments:

Ed said...

I take teh hartford local busline to work every day. The buses are old and falling apart (its a 50-50 chance the coin machine will jam everytime I step on teh bus) and the prices have gone up twice in the last 2 years.

MY friend is constantly trying to convince me Hartford needs a trolley system connecting hartford with teh west end, west hartford center, the south end, etc. I always said it sounded crazy, but so much anymore.

Genghis Conn said...

Trollies worked pretty well long ago, and people like them now. They're quaint. Might be tough to do, though: putting rails down in the streets isn't easy.

The Hartford Advocate ran a piece about how lousy the buses are last week.

stomv said...

^ Multi purpose roadways (car, plus at least one of trolly, streetcar, bicycle, etc) work really well, but only when cars aren't in a rush to drive through the neighborhood. This exists in Boston on the green line, particuarly the E line where the streetcar drives on tracks down the middle of the street.

Connecticut needs to figure out:
(a) do people need mass transit to get to NYC/Boston/Hartford/Providence from suburban areas, or do they
(b) need mass transit within Hartford, New Haven, etc. Sure both can be done, but without really understanding the mass transit needs, this is a tough problem to sovle. I'd bet its more of (a) -- alleviating the traffic from people driving 15-100 miles to work into a city center.

If it is (a), then CT needs to build more rail and more HOV lanes. It also needs to understand that they are building these in leiu of more highways, and therefore ought to subsidize the construction and fares with gasoline taxes.

After all, everybody wants everybody else to take mass transit.

Genghis Conn said...

Stomv,

You're right, Connecticut seems to need inter-city (and inter-town) public transportation more than it needs intra-city transportation. There's already something of a demand for this: commuter lots in my area are pretty heavily used. I know the town committee I was working on for a while had hoped that a new train station would help in that regard, but taking Amtrak from Enfield to Hartford every day would be far too expensive for most people. I remember that it cost $7.00 to travel from Windsor to Berlin on the train. $7! In 1993!

dumbruss said...

Any plans for public transportation need to be based in reality.

For the bus way: How are people going to be getting there? Is there parking at the stations so that people who live a short drive away can park/ride? Will it be taking people to a place where they can walk to work? How much are the fares going to be?

For the ferry: Many of the same questions exist plus two more, who is commuting from LI to New Haven, and for those who are why is the Port Jeff ferry to Bridgeport not sufficient?

Why spend money on projects that could be used to actually improve roads on public transportation projects that will be stillborn?


Nothing angers me more then these grand public transportation dreams that are built without a great deal of thought, and then lead to little or no ridership in the end. Eventually, the service is cancelled when its clear that its a worthless money sink.

Before I'm flamed out here, note that is a different statement then saying why spend any money on public transportation ever.

MikeCT said...

All Aboard! is a good CT resource on transporation issues. Their recent report on transportation in the state is summarized in a news release and the full PDF report is also available.

Among the findings:

* Despite a long list of individuals, departments, commissions and organizations, transportation planning and funding decisions are made primarily by the Connecticut Department of Transportation (DOT) either in consultation with the Governor and General Assembly or in the absence of such leadership.

* Analysis of budget documents shows that the majority (78%) of the capital funds in Connecticut’s transportation program go to highway projects.

* At 25 cents a gallon, Connecticut’s gas tax is currently the lowest it has been in the past two and a half decades (adjusting for inflation).

* Connecticut currently uses only 8% of its federal “flexible funding” dollars for transit and bicycle/pedestrian projects.

The really wonky may want to review the report of the Transportation Strategy Board.

I read the Hartford Advocate article on the bus system and thought it - or at least the title - was poorly written. The cover subtitle is "Public transit in Hartford - underfunded, slow and inconvenient". Yet the article provides no evidence that is in fact "slow and inconvenient", despite the author's numerous conversations with riders: "Like almost all of the people I had spoken to about using the Hartford bus system, he was dissatisfied with the service, but either unwilling or unable to say why." They don't like the seats? The smell? The schedule? The cost? Who knows? Maybe it does provide poor service, but it makes little sense to bash it in the cover title and then provide no evidence for the claim. (In fairness, maybe the author had nothing to do with the title appearing on the cover or above the article.)

And frankly, he dwells too much on his own discomfort with the non-white riders, whom he portrays as a little weird and *not like us*: "The girl behind me was talking loudly into her cell phone about how her friend was only interested in very dark-skinned men. Two rows ahead, an old Asian man sat in a mechanized wheelchair. At the next stop a skinny black man got on the bus. He had a manila envelope that he withdrew X-rays from." Disabled, sick, loud, and non-white! Stay away from those crazy bus people!

Quinn said...

I agree, this bus system is completely and utterly pointless.

And $355 million? My God! I think they were considering putting a tunnel through Avon Mountain for only $100 million (this was in the Courant). And that would actually be worthwhile. So many accidents and so many fatalities. Nobody has ever died of wont to take a bus. Obviously, the budget overruns on any such tunnel would be impressive, to say the least, but they wouldn't top $355 million.

Anonymous said...

The last time they were talking about high speed ferries they could not find a place to dock in NY, because Mr Trump did not want them ferrying people to the casinos. Do you think Metro North is going to help. and they ae talking a train/bus/ ferry terminal in New Haven. Did they move the harbor near the train station since yesterday?

Anonymous said...

Here is a radical idea:

Invest in MetroNorth and make it free. Would cost a TON of money, but would clear up the congestion on I-95 and the Merritt. Something similar could be done in other inter-city areas, but IMHO Farifield County has it the worst right now.

The reason I say make MetroNorth free is that most people inheritly don't like to use public transportation. I personally prefer the comfort and convenience of my car-- but if the train were free, that changes the equation a bit. Do other people agree?

I also have no idea of the economics of MetroNorth, so making it free may be unrealistic given the government subsidy it would require.

FrankS said...

Groups like the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, http://www.tstc.org/ct_pap/index.html, have long offered similiar recommendations, without progress.

Last week's Avon crash highlights the failures in our truck inspections, that the DMV had already discovered back in June when nearly 3,000 violations were found during the state’s three-day targeted crackdown this week of large commercial vehicles operating unsafely on roads throughout Connecticut,
http://www.ct.gov/dmv/cwp/view.asp?a=807&Q=294554&PM=1

The TSTC's 2001 view on trucks impacts, http://www.tstc.org/ct_pap/trucks.html, continues to have value, as Rell is apparently adopting this view on increasing inspections as her own.

Eddie said...

I'd favor at least looking into making it free, or possibly an annual EZ-Pass-type keycard system. The rest of the state may get twisted about subsidizing those infamous Fairfield County stockbrokers, but if at least some of the startup costs (which would be huge) were transferred from other DoT vanity projects it might be doable, and I think it could be good for the whole state.

Are most MetroNorth users regular users, or does that line pick up a lot of casual day-trippers?

Does MetroNorth answer to Connecticut, or is it akin to the Port Authority (beholden to New York and New Jersey, and answerable to, well, nobody)? In other words, would this radical idea have to be done in concert with New York? (Yeah, I know, I should follow the links, but it's late and my brains are shot.)

Genghis Conn said...

Eddie,

According to this, "In Connecticut, Metro-North is run under a joint operating agreement between ConnDOT and the MTA, which requires all operating subsidies to be paid by the State of Connecticut."

Part of the recent transportation bill was dedicated to the replacement of a lot of Metro North cars.

I'd love to see either free or really cheap public transportation. When I was in Germany, buses and trains went everywhere (every little village and hamlet was on a bus route), and they were reasonably inexpensive. Therefore, everybody took them. I believe, however, that they are heavily subsidized by the German government.