Connecticut’s new BRT system exceeds expectations and could spur transit-oriented development
By Logan Clark and Jonas Hagen
Shiny green and white articulated buses glide in and out of sleek stations that protect riders from the elements. Level boarding, simple off and on-board payment, ubiquitous display signs with real-time arrival information and cleanly designed system maps further ensure a comfortable and worry-free user experience. Enthusiastically received by the public, press and authorities, and with robust ridership levels, CTfastrak is a bold display of BRT’s potential to rapidly and radically upgrade transit in US cities.
“Throughout the planning process, opponents of CTfastrak always said, ‘Nobody will ride the system.’ Nine months in, we have clearly proved those critics wrong,” said Lyle Wray, the Executive Director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments (CRCOG), who has been in the fight for better transit the Greater Hartford region for twelve years. This past March, when users took their first rides on the brand-new CTfastrak buses, that long fight finally paid off.
The key element of CTfastrak is a 9.4 mile long separated busway that runs on an old rail right of way that links the city of Hartford, with a greater metro population of 1.2 million, and nearby New Britain. During rush hour the system runs on seven minute headways and express service reduces the trip from New Britain to Hartford to thirty minutes, a trip that previously took transit riders an entire hour. Pre-existing express buses also use the right of way, quickening commutes for their riders.
Besides frequent service on the main trunk route, several lines depart from the main corridor to connect users to important destinations such hospitals and shopping malls. The system’s stations are thoughtfully integrated into the urban landscape, with good pedestrian access and connections to a greenway that runs parallel to the system’s right of way.
A mixture of federal grants and state bonding provided funding for the construction of the busway, with the Federal Transportation Administration footing eighty percent of the initial $560 million price tag. Detractors of the busway characterized it at the time as a “boondoggle,” however, early ridership numbers have shown the system to be anything but. Ridership on CTfastrak has exceeded initial forecasts, averaging in between 16,000 and 17,000 rides on weekdays. Ridership on the local routes alone grew over 41% from May to October 2015, from 182,894 to 258,626 passengers.
The system may also prove an effective lever for transit-oriented development. Many system riders are new to transit, and utilize the plentiful park and ride facilities. However, if ridership continues to meet projections, the existing space dedicated to low cost or free parking around the stations could be transformed into mixed-use developments.
While balancing these needs may pose a challenge, Mr. Wray is positive that the right balance will be met. “There is a tension in land uses between parking and focusing more on transit-oriented development. But just because we’re providing parking doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to have sprawling surface level lots.”
In order to coordinate transit-oriented development along the busway, the state has established the Connecticut Transit Corridor Development Authority. The authority has the power to issue bonds and manage and encourage real estate development within half a mile of CTfastrak and Connecticut rail stations.
What’s next for CTfastrak? Extending the dedicated infrastructure all the way into downtown Hartford would maximize the potential of the BRT, and upgrades to the stations could make them more comfortable during snowy winters and humid summers. An ongoing evaluation of the system included public consultations, showing the willingness of the authorities to further fine-tune the system to riders’ needs.
Like a great number of cities throughout the US, since the 1950s, Hartford and its surrounding areas have suffered the negative consequences of suburbanization, with a largely abandoned city-center pierced by freeways and riddled with enormous parking facilities. Transit was seen merely as a necessity for residents too poor to own an automobile. CTfastrak has restored existing transit riders’ dignity, attracted new passengers, and may even contribute to healing the wounds inflicted by automobility. Cities around the country will notice.
Logan Clark is a Connecticut native pursuing his Master’s of Science in Urban Planning at Columbia University
Jonas Hagen is a PhD student in Urban Planning at Columbia University and a transportation consultant
All images credited to CTfastrak and are available here