NB Politicus

Busway Advances: Rapid Transit Wins Over Purchase of 28,000 Jeep Patriots

Posted in economic development, transportation by nbpoliticus on April 30, 2011

Last week the arguments against Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) along the I-84 corridor were less about choosing rail over buses and more about opposing any public investment at all in commuter transportation.

On April 29th, the state Bond Commission approved $90 million for the New Britain-Hartford bus way, the lion’s share of state investment in a $567 million project in line to receive $455 million in federal transportation funds.

GOP State Senator Andrew Roraback, in a Hail Mary salvo before the bond vote, equated the cost of  Central Connecticut’s first legitimate initiative on mass transit as the equivalent of purchasing 28,000 Jeep Patriots for  every resident of New Milford, one of the towns in his district.  Roraback’s ridiculous comparison didn’t exactly advance environmentalism nor rail.  Think of all those Jeeps (22 city/28 Highway) on I-84 and their carbon footprint in 2020!

Public transportation needs to encompass more than folks in the Northwest Hills hopping into their SUVs and getting a more convenient train into New York. It needs to be about working people getting to their jobs in cities. It needs to be about the Hartford student without a car being able to get to his CCSU classes on time.

Using fuzzy math, State Senator Jason Welch (R-31) told a constituent that the Busway will be a “boondoggle” and that light rail could be built at “10 percent”of the cost of the BRT.  Welch’s opposition clearly led him to start making up numbers on a light rail system. Say what you will about the BRT, but building rail infrastructure in this region, especially light rail, won’t be cheap.  At best a rail alternative is a $1 billion idea that is up to a decade away before any environmental and economic return on investments could be realized for the region.

There is an abundance of research on the costs and impact of rail versus BRTs.  BRTs have been shown to be flexible and effective as part of public transportation systems in metro areas around the world.  Certainly BRTs are not the end all for what a good transit system should be like in central Connecticut. But it is a start at reducing auto use and revitalizing urban areas which should be the priority of policymakers whether they come from cities or suburbs.

We’ve heard better arguments from opponents of the BRT than those made by Republicans Roraback and Welch this past week.  A boondoggle would really be occurring if the Governor had said no to the Busway thereby throwing the more than $65 million already invested in the project down the drain.

It makes you wonder. Had the Busway started in Bristol or Waterbury would these same opponents west of New Britain still be opposed? Or would they be hailing it as a necessary investment of public transportation dollars as economic stimulus (jobs) and every bit as good for the environment as any train?

Take That Bristol: The Case For Buses Over Rail

Posted in economic development, transportation by nbpoliticus on November 30, 2010

Buses Are the Answer: Developing a vibrant bus network would cost peanuts, compared with high-speed rail options.

Trains will never
Leave the gate;
Buses seem
A wiser fate.
With all due respect to President Barack Obama and the $8 billion he’s dishing out to the states for high-speed rail, it’s too late.
Fast trains have been overtaken by gradual events. America has become too populous and too spread out to allow enough rights-of-way to be acquired ever again.
Unlike Europe and Japan, we didn’t develop compact cities and towns. Instead, we sprawled them all over the countryside. OK, there’s plenty of room to run new lines in Nebraska and Idaho, but try Illinois or Georgia. It won’t work.
Still, the principle of getting travelers off planes is sound. Osama bin Laden has seen to that. Air travel has always been plagued with traffic congestion, mercurial fares, skyrocketing fees, baggage loss, bad weather, and mechanical glitches. Now there are unpredictable security lines as well. How many of us relish a plane trip anymore? Automatic check-in has helped, but not enough. What to do?
One alternative to shorter flights is, as I’ve argued before, the bus. Yes, the much maligned bus.
New bus systems have already captured the fancy of transit riders in Cleveland and the San Fernando Valley. Other burgeoning bus hotspots around the world include Beijing, Bogota, Brisbane, and Curitiba. Increasingly, these schemes are staving off additional subways wherever roads are wide enough to provide an exclusive lane.
But it’s not just local ridership that’s growing. Long-distance coach travel is swelling too. “Chinatown buses,” for many years a cheap option for traveling between major Northeast Corridor destinations such as Boston, New York, and Washington, DC, have expanded to 30 cities, reviving the ghost of Greyhound past.
The Interstate Highway System laid the foundation for long-haul bus service during the Eisenhower administration. Most countries didn’t have that kind of historic culture-altering, budget-busting initiative.
Back then, it was called the “Defense” Transportation Act, as was every other boondoggle of the day. It didn’t do much to deter the Soviets but it sure was great for road builders and automakers.
As fate would have it, it could also now be great for buses. We just need a little additional subsidized infrastructure. So let’s think what federal transportation subsidies could do if reallocated.
Since express buses can’t creep into every city, they need a dedicated terminal out on the interstate for picking up, dropping off and transferring passengers to other routes. They also need local transit services in each city to meet the express and scoot its arrivals into town. For the system to really succeed, it requires nifty new vehicles with real rest rooms, TV, internet, snack bar, and an attendant to approximate existing train and plane rides. And unlike trains, we even have American companies that can still manufacture these buses.
Of course such a system would cost money. But the cost would be peanuts compared to new rail lines, expanded airports, or added highway lanes. Amtrak, for example, wants to spend $117 billion over the next 30-years on high-speed rail just on the East Coast.
And the benefits would be huge. Like trains, buses with their more frequent schedules and convenience could attract air travelers away from short air hops and draw drivers out of their cars for the longer hauls.
Nor would these buses have to speed to reach their destinations in a timely fashion. Highway speed limits are high enough. More important are the low fares, convenient schedules, comfort, reliable connections and easy access.
Sure, high-speed trains have advantages, especially over longer routes. But it’s time for our nation to face reality. There’s no money and no lobby for trains and ‘they’re not likely to appear.
Express buses are a far cheaper, better bet for getting large numbers of riders off those short-trip airplanes.
OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.
from Other Words, formerly Minuteman Media: a project of the Institute for Policy Studies


Shared with permission under Creative Commons

Strategic Bonding: Senate Dems Push "Jobs Now" Initiative

Posted in DeFronzo, economic development, unemployment by nbpoliticus on January 3, 2010

The federal stimulus program is getting credit for mitigating 2008’s economic free fall (Things would be worse without it). Recovery as defined by Wall Street financiers and their troika of Obama administration buddies –Rahm Emmanuel, Larry Summers and Tim Geithner — is well under way.

But the employment numbers and continuing slide in local tax revenues make for a “jobless recovery” in Connecticut through 2011 or perhaps beyond. Federal stimuli, even when the state manages to get all the new money in the pipeline, won’t solve a deep-seated problem.

“Over the last twenty years, Connecticut has seen perhaps the poorest job creation among all fifty states,” stated a UCONN Center for Economic Analysis report in November. “And in the last decade, most job growth came in health care, accommodation and food services, education, and government (especially local government). A broader perspective gives little hope that Connecticut will see the restoration of growth in jobs—let alone high‐wage jobs‐‐given current policy and economic development initiatives.”

State Comptroller Nancy Wyman, speaking to the New Britain Democratic Town Committee December 21st, confirmed CT’s troubles saying Connecticut is probably in the top three or four among state governments having the most trouble balancing the books in the current economy. Emerging mitigation steps, including cuts to the social safety net and more givebacks by state employees, will not address the structural problem that is measured by Wyman’s estimate of the loss of up to 80,000 jobs in recent years.

Last November’s Metro Hartford unemployment rate of just over eight percent understates the employment problem. In cities such as New Britain that official number is more like 12 percent — not including the discouraged workers and the under-employed thousands who are in the part-time work force.

Responding to the economic gloom, State Senator Donald DeFronzo and other state Senators have rolled out a “Connecticut Jobs Now” plan that would use $1 billion in state bonding to invest in transportation infrastructure, housing, energy conservation, clean water and higher education. Picking up where the federal stimulus won’t go, state Senate Dems describe the policy as “an aggressive plan to create jobs, stimulate Connecticut’s sluggish economy and promote economic recovery.”

States DeFronzo: “Connecticut needs jobs, and needs them now; we have a responsibility to create and sustain jobs in our state. The unemployment rate in Connecticut is 8.2 percent; construction industry employment is upwards of 25 percent. Our current market conditions offer an unprecedented opportunity for the state to make wise capital investments in new facilities, clean water projects, roads and bridges, mass transit and many other projects that could be bid and under construction in a very short period of time.” DeFronzo is Senate Chairman of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee and General Bonding subcommittee.

“Connecticut Jobs Now”, promising a 12-month push to create 16,000 jobs, calls for the funding of only those projects that were previously authorized. Wyman and other state officials would most certainly oppose any new bonding given the high levels of current debt incurred by state government from the Rowland/Rell years. The Jobs Now strategy calls for allocation of those projects that could be implemented within 90 to 120 days. Several state agencies, including the state Department of Transportation and Department of Public Works have already developed project lists that meet the recommended criteria.

“The state and federal government need to spark more private investment and job creation, and we can do that by re-prioritizing our existing bond authorizations to complete shovel-ready projects,” Senator Jonathan Harris (D-West Hartford) said. “We don’t need to authorize any more bonding — we just need to invest it differently. And we need to do this immediately.”

Governor Rell, who controls the state’s bonding agenda, has not responded to the Senate Dems proposal sent to her in a December 18th letter. Whether she will buy into a strategic call to get moving on bond projects already authorized but not acted on by her bond commission is uncertain. Given the state’s lackluster job creation efforts since the early 1990s, “Jobs Now” and similar ideas should be the dominant concern among those who are trying to succeed Rell. It’s not a cliche to say “it’s the economy stupid” in 2010.

Railing Against Highways: Is Momentum Building For Expanded Rail, Bus Service?

Posted in economic development, transportation by nbpoliticus on January 31, 2009

Connecticut is a tale of two places when it comes to use of public transportation. There’s the Gold Coast and the Metro North line with hundreds of thousands of riderships on trains that need replacement and upgrade. Then there is the rest of us in central and eastern Connecticut with limited bus services and downtowns where the biggest retail businesses may be parking lots and garages. When he opened his restaurant a few years ago the late Hartford Mayor Mike Peters quipped that he could offer you a $7.50 hamburger but it would cost $10 or more for parking during your visit to Hartford’s central business district.

News stories this week suggest that the policy and plans on mass transit may be getting greener and less dependent on automobiles. A January 30th story by the Courant’s Don Stacom addressed the issue of a new approach and targeted use of federal stimulus money to push public modes of transit and reducing what the Al Gore crowd calls our “carbon footprint.”

The take away from the Hartford meetings attended by legislators and advocates was that it’s time to push a new agenda for the sake of the environment and for economic recovery built around new thinking on transportation. “With the federal stimulus plan moving quickly through Congress, leaders from a variety of alternative transportation fields agreed that they have a narrow window of time to influence how Connecticut uses its share of the money,” noted the news report.

On January 29th, the Courant’s Stacom reported on an even more tangible proposal to activate long dormant railroad tracks on the Waterbury to Hartford route, including stops in New Britain and neighboring towns.

Officials with Pan Am Railways told lawmakers that for $52 million, their company could bring the tracks on the Waterbury-to-Berlin stretch up to federal standards for passenger service and also build small stations in Bristol, Plainville and New Britain

The quick start up idea from Pan Am stands in stark contrast to the slow moving and increasingly costly busway plan first proposed in 1998. This plan would make downtown New Britain the terminal at the former Greenfield’s store site for a bus lane into Hartford aside tracks that are now used infrequently for freight.

State Senator Don DeFronzo (D-New Britain), along with colleagues Rep. Betty Boukus (D-Plainville) and David McCluskey (D-West Hartford) said the Legislature will examine these options toward mass transit closely in the first part of the current session. Joe Marie, the state’s new transportation commissioner, will be looking at this Waterbury to Hartford connector route that could be expanded and linked to local bus service if ridership demands increase. Marie will discover that old and steady habits die hard in Connecticut. But he is a departure from transportation commissioners of the past having come from Boston and the MBTA.

This may signal the end of the line for the New Britain-Hartford busway plan. From the start old transportation regimes said busway was preferable over rail because the ridership wouldn’t justify a rail passenger system. That limited vision seems to have doomed the once promising Griffin line (Hartford to the airport)in the 1980s and left the busway stalled and steeped in cost overruns.

If the Waterbury rail idea gets approval, New Britain’s downtown could benefit from being a stop on the line as much if not more than the busway. Transit-related plans for downtown economic development would stay on track, and residents could get an alternative to I-84 snarls and parking fees.

Hello Sweet Heart, Get Me Re-Write: Herald, Press Survive

Posted in economic development, journalism by nbpoliticus on January 25, 2009

The New Britain Herald and Bristol Press, left to die by the parent Journal Register Company (JRC) late in 2008, will survive.

Today’s Herald story by Scott Whipple confirmed that Michael Schroeder, a veteran newspaper exec from Newsday, has made good on his promise to be the white knight entrepreneur for the two local dailies and three weeklies in central Connecticut.

[Photo credit: Movie poster The Front Page (1974)]

Schroeder is the president, publisher and chief executive of the group [Central Connecticut Communications], and will manage all operations from the newspapers’ offices in New Britain and Bristol. The daily papers will continue to publish seven days a week, and the weeklies will appear Fridays.

“This has been an exciting process, getting to know the staff and the people around New Britain and Bristol,” Schroeder said. “We will be building on a great paper, with a team that is ready to move forward and not look back.”

Jeff Pijanowski, a longtime colleague of Schroeder at Newsday who now writes his own blog, leaves little doubt that the new publisher has journalism in his blood and may be in this for more than the money: “He’s one of the top journalists I have ever met. He brings a level of excitement in the newsroom few other executives can. He’s not afraid to take risks when necessary, he’ll roll up his sleeves with his staff, and he certainly can breathe life into a news organization that was close to shutting its doors.”
As doubtful as it appeared in our earlier posts here of November 27 and December 31, a best case scenario has emerged for the hometown dailies — a publisher committed to keeping two institutions of commerce and coverage alive and adaptable to new kinds of news delivery in print and on line.

This happy ending wouldn’t be complete without citing the alarm bells first raised by State Rep. Tim O’Brien (D-24) about the loss of the daily papers in central Connecticut. O’Brien, soon joined by other legislators and the mayors of New Britain and Bristol, wrote to the state Department of Economic Development (DECD) asking for its assistance in finding a buyer. Contrary to some misguided commentary that the lawmakers were looking for a bailout that would lead to government control of newsrooms, this was a case of elected leaders looking out for the well being of their communities and advocating for preservation of fourth estate that is indispensable in a democracy. It’s not clear whether the state DECD will be offering specific assistance to the local newspapers via small business loans or other incentives. But the enterprise should receive the same concern that any other business would in the effort to save jobs and promote commerce in the region.

The ruckus raised by O’Brien and other public officials was certainly loud enough to be heard by Schroeder, leading to this week’s improbable rebirth of the dailies.

Commuter Question: Rail Over Busway

Posted in downtown, economic development, transportation by nbpoliticus on January 3, 2009

Today’s Courant story by Don Stacom reports on a brewing change in legislative thinking on public transit in the area led by State Rep. David McCluskey of West Hartford.

McCluskey, disturbed over the lack of progress by the Department of Transportation on the New Britain busway, recently called for dumping the New Britain/Hartford busway as too limited for emerging needs. This would sink New Britain’s terminal station planned for the former Greenfield’s property and force a change in thinking for downtown development.

From Don Stacom’s story:

“The busway was supposed to be a way to keep from building another lane on I-84, but I don’t have much faith that people are going to drive into New Britain to take a bus to Hartford,” McCluskey said. “But would people in Bristol and Plainville and New Britain use a train to Hartford? And would people in West Hartford welcome a way to get to New York? I think so.”

With last summer’s gas prices a harbinger of things to come and a surge in demand for rail service (even in Connecticut), McCluskey has a point. Investment in rail on existing tracks may be where we should have started 10 years ago. It’s another indication that Connecticut has had more of a highway department than a true Department of Transportation through the years.

Related: Rep. McCluskey’s blog frequently reports on transit conferences and meetings at http://ctprogressivedemocrat.blogspot.com/

Push To Save Herald, Press Sparks Debate In National Media

Posted in economic development, journalism by nbpoliticus on January 1, 2009

The push by local legislators, as mentioned in November 28’s post, to involve the Department of Economic Development (DECD) in efforts to save The Herald of New Britain and the Bristol Press is drawing national media attention.

A Reuters story posted at The Huffington Post focuses on questions of a free press and the potential conflicts that would arise if newspapers got government “bailouts” or other forms of assistance.

The coverage is being driven by a mistaken notion advanced in some reports (including those by Courant columnists Stan Simpson and Kevin Rennie) that the proposal would give the newspapers a handout or “bailout” in the face of falling revenues and readership.

That wasn’t the case at all when State Rep. Tim O’Brien (D-24) first asked economic development officials to lend a hand in finding a buyer or potential investors to replace the absentee and failed ownership of The Journal Register Company. The state DECD Commissioner, Joan McDonald, said as much in noting that the push by local elected officials has drawn up to five potential buyers who would take advantage of incentives that her department could provide.

In the Reuters analysis, writer Robert MacMillan notes that legislators, who this week were joined by the Mayors of New Britain and Bristol, sought state intervention to find a way to save these hometown dailies, both of which have a long tradition as the local commercial dailies in once thriving factory towns.

MacMillan, quoting journalism professors and experts, frames the issue in terms of the conflicts that would ensue with state assistance for a newspaper:

To some experts, that sounds like a bailout, a word that resurfaced this year after the U.S. government agreed to give hundreds of billions of dollars to the automobile and financial sectors.

Relying on government help raises ethical questions for the press, whose traditional role has been to operate free from government influence as it tries to hold politicians accountable to the people who elected them. Even some publishers desperate for help are wary of this route.

Providing government support can muddy that mission, said Paul Janensch, a journalism professor at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, and a former reporter and editor.

The Reuters story correctly points out that the separation of the press and government is just as important in a democracy as the separation of church and state.

That separation, however, would not be jeopardized at all if a buyer is found for the Herald or Press, or both, and the newspapers survive via the public sector incentives that DECD would provide.

Whether DECD incentives were part of the sale or not, the assumption that newsrooms would be compromised in New Britain and Bristol is based on unfounded speculation by those journalists and academics who are calling these efforts by DECD a “bailout.”

With the Herald due to close January 12th, it is the longest of long shots to assume a deal will come together in time to save it. Some other form or forms of journalism need to emerge to keep the fourth estate alive locally. The best scenario is that a community newspaper (using both print and the internet) be locally owned and self-sustaining, not another absentee owner seeking to plunder these local papers as the Journal Register company has done.

One Way To Promote Job Growth and Stability: Eliminate Tuition At State’s Public Colleges

Posted in economic development, public education by nbpoliticus on March 10, 2008

The earning power of college graduates versus those whose highest attainment is a high school diploma favors the former by a wide margin. In central Connecticut, it doesn’t really matter anymore if you want a job as an analyst at an insurance company or fill out an application at a small manufacturer to build parts on the shop floor. You will need post-secondary skills to fill decent paying jobs in our regional economy.

That’s what makes State Rep. Timothy O’Brien’s legislation to eliminate in-state tuition for students at UCONN, the state universities and the community colleges intriguing. So intriguing that O’Brien’s proposal has drawn considerable press coverage, including a February 21 story in the Meriden Record-Journal.

House Bill 5261 “will eliminate all tuition and fees for in-state residents” and proposes “that funding be increased to offset the costs” of eliminating in-state tuition at the public colleges and universities. While many would call the O’Brien idea unaffordable, the need to make college and post-secondary training opportunities available is broadly recognized as a key to retaining jobs and a stronger economy.

O’Brien’s idea is not new. Free public education is an idea deeply rooted in the American egalitarian ideal. Once upon time California was a K-graduate school system without tuitions and fees. And last year MA Governor Duval Patrick, a business friendly Democrat, proposed a guarantee that the 12 community colleges in his state be open and tuition-free.

According to the Record Journal, O’Brien recognizes the current reliance on student tuition and fees to meet operating costs: “O’Brien’s bill would require students who did not pay tuition and fees for the duration of college to pay a fixed rate for a certain amount of time after they graduate, depending on their income. If they move out of state, however, the students would be required to pay back the full amount.”

Says O’Brien: “I introduced this legislation because I think that it is time that Connecticut start talking about the fact that high tuition and fees at our public institutions of higher education is a growing barrier to a college education for many people in our state, even if good financial aid is available for students.” O’Brien emphasizes that the bill is also an effort to stem a “brain drain” that will encourage young people to stay in Connecticut.

While O’Brien concedes that House Bill 5261 will likely go no where in a short legislative session. He knows it opens an important discussion on educational access and economic policy that will not end with the close of the General Assembly this year.

Post originally appeared at http://newbritaindemocrat.blogspot.com