April 15, 2014 11:33AM
By STEPHEN SINGER
HARTFORD — A half-billion dollar, 9.4-mile bus-only corridor in central Connecticut is nearly a year away from opening, but officials are already in high gear as they try to persuade commuters to leave their cars at home.
Transportation and economic development officials are preparing a marketing campaign for the dedicated Hartford-to-New Britain bus rapid transit system, known as CTfastrak. Transportation officials have explained the details to towns and cities along the route and are preparing a marketing campaign for the summer to sell riders on the value of the route as a transit system more flexible than rail.
“The point is to make this a roaring success on Day One,” said Oz Griebel, head of the MetroHartford Alliance, which leads the region’s economic development efforts.
The state is budgeting about $3 million for an 18- to 24-month marketing effort on radio, billboards, movie theater ads and the Internet.
A lot is riding on the project. At $567 million — $112 million in state money and the remainder from the federal government — the bus-only corridor has not lacked for critics who expressed shock at the cost.
Michael Nicastro, past president of the Central Connecticut Chamber of Commerce, said he is still remains skeptical that it’s needed.
“They’re going to have to market the tar out of it,” he said. “I’m not surprised the marketing is starting a year before opening. The challenge has always been the ridership. I still don’t see anything to drive the ridership.”
State officials are projecting more than 16,000 daily riders in 2030, double the number of bus passengers in the corridor now. Michael Sanders, the Transportation Department’s transit administrator, is confident CTfastrak will reach that number before 2030 as current ridership increases with service that’s faster, reaches more distant points and draws in college students and crowds from special events.
The Transportation Department is not marketing CTfastrak “because we’re pressured for ridership,” he said. “We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do with a new service,” he said. “It’s the biggest transit project we’ve done from scratch.”
Supporters say the system will relieve congestion on nearby Interstate 84.
Bus rapid transit systems operate in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Ontario, among other places, and are popular in other countries, particularly in Latin America.
The systems vary in how they are implemented. Some have buses that run on roads open only to them. Others, such as most of the Silver Line in Boston, run on bus-only lanes in city traffic. Some use a combination of features. CTfastrak will run almost entirely on a dedicated two-lane highway, with a short loop in Hartford.
Geoff Slater, a principal at Nelson/Nygaard Consulting Associates Inc. in Boston, said the cost of the Hartford-to-New Britain project is in line with what it delivers: a bus route unimpeded by traffic, lights and other obstructions.
“Hartford and Connecticut did not make compromises that others did so you’ll have a better service,” he said.
Complicating the public relations work is that state transportation officials implied there was a limit to the scope of the project when planners initially called it a busway between Hartford and New Britain, Sanders said. The transit system is “not just a roadway,” he said, but a connection to local bus lines and branch lines to the New Haven line of Metro-North Railroad.
Newington Mayor Stephen Woods said the bus-only corridor is “much bigger” than just its length.
“This is a whole new marketing plan to put in place,” he said. “They need you to get out of your car and get on the bus. That’s hard to do.”
Transportation officials have improved marketing but initially failed to effectively sell the project, Woods said. “What they do best is build roads, not marketing,” he said.
“That’s a very fair criticism,” Sanders said.
Transportation officials have not typically advertised other than public service ads for highway safety, seatbelt use and the like, he said. Because of its size, cost and its status as the only such transit project in Connecticut, CTfastrak stands out. Construction of the two-lane highway will include 10 transit stations, 17 bridges, the relocation of 1 mile of an active Amtrak rail line and a 4.5-mile long maintenance road for Amtrak.
For motorists used to the comfort of their own cars, even as they’ve become accustomed to traffic jams on Interstate 84, riding a bus will be a hard sell, said Oz Griebel, head of the MetroHartford Alliance, which leads the region’s economic development efforts.
MetroHartford has been working with state transportation officials, promoting ridership among area employers and local Chambers of Commerce, “to make sure the pump is being primed early and often for potential riders,” Griebel said.
Griebel, who helped lead state transportation planning in the early 2000s as chairman of an advisory board, said the bus-only project was among the panel’s recommendations as an alternative to Connecticut’s crowded highways.
“It’s a transit option that’s a lot cheaper than fixed rail,” he said. “I think this has a real, legitimate shot. We have a responsibility to do everything we can to get the word out.”