It's been probably over a hundred times I've passed through Hartford, but always passing through, making a bus connection for New York, Boston or Worcester, at Union Station. The station itself is nice enough, a major intercity bus hub and Amtrak station, adjacent to downtown with the large Bushnell Park almost directly across the street. Hartford is the state capital of Connecticut with a resident population of about 125,000 and, like most old cities, is experiencing significant residential and commercial growth.
Yet somehow despite dozens of missed bus connections -- less frequent these days as Peter Pan Bus operations have significantly improved over the past decade, and also because I tend to avoid traveling on holiday weekends -- I never have managed to take time to explore Hartford.
This weekend I was also passing through, en route to northeastern Pennsylvania to visit family. But this time I got to ride a piece of the new New Britain - Hartford Busway, just opened alongside the Amtrak inland route and branded as CT Fastrak.
It comes with well-spaced stations, passing lanes to accommodate the variety of local and express routes, and is mostly grade separated; travel time for the entire 12 miles including all stops is just 24 minutes. It is taking some time for people to adjust to the route changes but so far CT Fastrak seems to be working well and is a model for other cities. The mayor of East Hartford took a ride and is already advocating for the busway to be extended through that city and into Manchester.
Much effort has been spent on launching "bus rapid transit" lines but typically what we see is not real BRT -- dedicated space for buses with widely spaced stations, level boarding, off-board fare payment and frequent service -- but usually something marginally better than existing local bus service as we know it. See Boston's Silver Line, New York's Select Bus Service, Washington's MetroRapid and many others. Compared to branding and focusing on a single route, building a running way facility that multiple services can use provides a major benefit.
Pittsburgh is well known in the transit world for building its first busway 30 years ago and two more since then, though the stations and could use a major upgrade and the buses need priority downtown. Just about every city has unused rail corridors or low-volume highways that are waiting for a more productive use, yet very few have built serious priority facilities for buses, which are of course the most efficient way of moving large numbers of people.
Some have criticized CT Fastrak, mainly for exceeding its budget. But what recent transportation project has not experienced cost overruns? With long project timelines, rising construction costs, problematic federal cost-effectiveness metrics and the widely used practice of automatically choosing the lowest contract bidder, transit projects are all but guaranteed to exceed their budget. Cost alone is not a good reason to oppose a particular project, arbitrarily deciding that X is "too much money"? What is X? $40? $40 million? $2 billion? Why? Who decides this? And isn't the point of a government to pool resources so we can provide services that would otherwise be impossible?
More busways, please.
By the way, the cheapest way to create a busway is to mark it off with cones, especially if you're just testing it out.