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Environment

How a Busway Might Change Connecticut’s Commuter Culture

“Eventually we’ll have a cohesive system where people say, ‘This is just what we do in New Britain to get around.’”<br><i>No'a Roche </i>

The CTfastrak busway turned a once-abandoned rail line into a limited-access highway spanning New Britain to Hartford, laying the foundation for a new concept in central Connecticut: rapid transit.

Political and economic aspirations now ride on the busway's success.

With state officials boasting 7,000 new daily riders, far exceeding original goals, CTfastrak has faced only a few challenges in its first seven weeks of operation: traffic caused by street construction slowed routes in downtown Hartford, and parking is short at some stations. 

But for a $1.50 two-hour fare, you can usually expect a traffic-free, quick commute through central Connecticut on the new busway. 
 
So who takes it to get around?

No’a Roche does. She's 24, lives in New Britain, and is a student in a real estate and urban planning post-grad program.

Roche doesn’t own a car, and she doesn’t plan to own one. She takes the bus to the grocery store, the bar, and to her job in Hartford. She's an advocate for more public transportation, and she said the busway is a good start.

Shifting Demographics

In the first few weeks of the busway’s launch, Roche said she observed a new sort of commuter culture budding. “I met people who told me it was their first time being on public transit in their lives, and they’re older I am,” she said.

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Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
No'a Roche is a New Britain resident and public transportation advocate.

Roche said that CTfastrak’s unique amenities have attracted these first-time riders. “The free WiFi -- that’s a very middle-class amenity; you can sit there and work on your way to work,” she said.

According to Connecticut DOT Transit Manager Lisa Rivers, riders will be able to pay with their bus fares from their smartphones as soon as next January.

James Hartman, an executive at Travelers Insurance, said the modern design of the CTfastrak buses played a big part in his choice to become a regular busway commuter.

“For many years, people wouldn’t take the bus because when you look at the buses themselves, they don’t look like attractive places to be,” Hartman said.

With both sleek design and affordable fares, the nine-mile busway seems to bridge the demographic gap of public transportation.  

Edwin Rodriguez, a machine operator from Hartford, said his weekday commute to New Britain is about 20 minutes shorter now that he can use the busway instead of local transit. He said he’d like to see an expansion of CTfastrak's reach. 

Mike Szepanski, a produce retailer, used to take the local bus from New Britain to his job in Newington before he bought a car. He recently decided to try out the busway and is now considering switching back to taking the bus.

“You’re looking at $3.00 instead of $6.70 for gas. I think it’s well worth the $1.50 [2-hour fare],” Szepanski said.

Roche said that cross-demographic use of public transportation is crucial for a more transit-oriented culture. And lower-income, disabled, and elderly people must be able to get to it without using a car, Roche said. When everyone is using the system, Roche said, problems within it might get more attention from the state.

“Eventually we’ll have a cohesive system where people say, ‘This is just what we do in New Britain to get around. There’s nothing wrong with it.’” Roche said.

Improving Accessibility

CTfastrak offers shuttles to “Park ‘n’ Rides,” connections to local bus routes, and extended service to Bristol, Plainville, Southington, and Wethersfield.

Justin Eichenlaub, a Yale administrator who lives in the south end of Hartford, said the busway's connectivity to surrounding communities also hinges on its physical accessibility.

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Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
The Elmwood Station CTfastrak platform several days before the busway's opening.

Eichenlaub commutes to New Haven by car, bus, and bike. The CTfastrak station he uses is in the Elmwood section of West Hartford off of New Britain Avenue. He said that while significant improvements have been made to the accessibility of the busway stations in Parkville and off Sigourney Street in Hartford, the poorer sections along New Britain Avenue aren’t safe for pedestrians and cyclists.

“It’s such a frustrating street, and its lack of adequate bike and pedestrian infrastructure really cuts everyone in my neighborhood off from the amenities in Elmwood,” Eichenlaub said.

Eichenlaub also said the New Britain Station, where pedestrians have to walk across railroad tracks and a faded crosswalk to go downtown,  is “bizarre how bad and uninviting it is.”

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Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Pedestrians cross the street between Downtown New Britain and its CTfastrak station.

Community-to-busway connectivity is on the DOT’s radar. Rivers said in the first phase of CTfastrak’s implementation, the state did what they had funding for.

“We have to take little bites. We can’t fix fifty years of a car-focused design and building process all at once.” Rivers said.

“CTfastrak really provided the impetus for us to get funding for these projects that are helping us revitalize downtown.”<br><i>Mark Moriarty </i>

Meanwhile, New Britain officials are aware of the need to connect its CTfastrak station to the city's downtown district. They’ve secured almost $11 million in grants in an effort to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists, according to public works director Mark Moriarty.

The grants will fund New Britain’s “Downtown transformation” project, entering  its third phase this month. This phase focuses on reconnecting both sides of Downtown, which is divided by a highway overpass installed over 40 years ago.

The Downtown New Britain CTfastrak station sits next to the overpass, which Moriarty said is currently a desolate, isolated section of Main Street.

“It’s kind of ironic because the split of New Britain by Route 72 wiped out a lot of character of the Downtown and physically divided it,” Moriarty said. “CTfastrak really provided the impetus for us to get funding for these projects that are helping us revitalize downtown.”

Corrections: An earlier version of this post named Lisa Rivers as Connecticut DOT supervising planner. Her position changed recently to transit manager. Also, the Elmwood station is in West Hartford, not Hartford.

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