Despite heavy criticism, the controversial $567 million plan to build a 9.4-mile New Britain to Hartford busway project, CT Fastrak, is moving ahead at full speed.
State officials promise the busway will transform the way thousands of Hartford-area residents and students commute to work and school, including Central Connecticut State University. However, the NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters dug deeper to find out what the target market actually knows – or does not know – about what is coming.
“I've never heard of that,” said CCSU junior Gabriel Cologna.
“This is the first time I’ve heard of it. I know nothing about it,” freshman Will Rabah of Middletown said.
“Are they buses? Right, they're buses?” asked undergraduate Brianna Kirk.
“I have no idea what you're even talking about,” sociology major Nelson Martinez of Avon said with a blank stare.
Despite the fact most students were entirely unaware of the project, CCSU students are projected to be among the thousands of riders of this CT Fastrak, which is scheduled to open in 2015. The problem: they were never consulted or surveyed about how they would actually use it.
The lengthy approval process for CT Fastrak only included a feasibility study known as a “national ridership model,” according to the CT Department of Transportation (DOT). No actual ridership study for the thousands of students at CCSU was conducted, even though they were part of the original pitch.
“There were a couple of studies done by the state but I don't think they brought anything specifically to our attention," said Eric Bergenn, CCSU student body president.
Bergenn told the NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters it will be difficult for the state to justify spending half a billion dollars when most students commute in their own vehicles, and tuition continues to rise.
"I don't think it's the best time to make this big of an investment but at the same time I'm not in the position to make that decision,” Bergenn added.
Other students agree.
"I personally wouldn't use it," said senior Kaitlin Goslee. “I know it was very expensive and people were concerned that it might not be a useful tool.”
"I think it's a waste of money,” Martinez said.
In an interview with CCSU President Jack Miller, he confirmed the CT DOT did not work with the university before design and construction of the $27 million New Britain busway station. Miller insisted, however, that CCSU will find a way to put riders on Fastrak when it is operational.
"Of the five cities where we have the largest numbers, where we have the largest number of students..four of them have stops on the busway,” Miller said. “Of the five cities where we have the most employees, four of them have stops on the busway."
Miller says CCSU’s location along the busway will yield positive ridership results.
"The potential for ridership by employees is certainly in the hundreds, and the potential for ridership of students is in the thousands,” he said.
There is no turning back on the Fastrak project now, but the Department of Transportation continued to justify the project because of results from its national ridership model.
"The number we're estimating for 2015 will be closer to about 14,000 on start-up date,” DOT Transit Administrator Michael Sanders told NBC Connecticut.
According to Sanders, most people do not know that Fastrak is the most critical part of a larger plan to lighten the heavy traffic load on Interstate 84.
"The longer we can keep the pressure off of I-84, especially as we're looking at replacing the viaduct in Hartford, that's really one of the goals,” Sanders said.
Students at CCSU eventually conceded that boarding a bus might become a more viable option once the busway is actually up and running.
"I think once it's there and it's completely done and there are reviews about then maybe students will want to use it more,” said Amanda Webster, an undergraduate student and news editor of the school paper, The Recorder.
"I don't think there will be a problem with getting ridership from CCSU students,” Bergenn said. “I just don't know where they're going to go."
The Connecticut Department of Transportation reported this week that the project is still on schedule for an early 2015 opening.