Blessing or Boondoggle?
The New Britain-Hartford busway is happening. Construction crews are working on it across the state. But that hasn’t stopped a group of Republican lawmakers from calling reporters to raise objections at every turn, and the Malloy administration seems to be growing tired of it.
The latest objection comes from New Britain where the busway route passes through Fairview Cemetery over an old Amtrak right of way. Trees had grown up on the abandoned rail line and crews were brought in to remove them. The work brought construction equipment within a few feet of the grave sites.
It prompted Candice Hewins, a New Britain resident with family buried at Fairview, to pen a letter to Sen. Joe Markley, a constant opponent of the busway project. Hewins said the busway will disrupt the “eternal rest” of her grandparents and uncle. Markley’s staff invited reporters to tour the cemetery and listen to the concerns of Markley and other Republican lawmakers.
It wasn’t the first such event. In June, Republicans set up a press conference for the owner of an auto repair shop in Newington, who was unhappy with the state’s acquisition of part of the business’s property to complete the project.
In all likelihood it won’t be the last time Markley and Republican Reps. Rob Sampson and Whit Betts engage the media on the busway topic.
“People are going to realize as time goes on just how intrusive this project is going to be,” Markley said Friday.
But the governor’s administration and the Department of Transportation seem tired of defending a project that’s already been approved and set in motion.
Asked to comment on the project’s impact on the cemetery, one Transportation Department spokesman said he couldn’t help and abruptly hung up the phone. Another DOT spokesman was willing to defend the project, but Roy Occhiogrosso, the governor’s senior communications adviser, said the administration is “puzzled” by the media’s continued attention to Markley.
“Sen. Markley is an elected official and he has the right to do whatever he chooses to do. But this project is moving forward now,” Occhiogrosso said. “... It seems a little silly that at least once a week he has some sort of event and a story or two gets written and there’s really no news.”
The project was fully vetted and the subject of several public hearings where people had the opportunity to voice their concerns, he said. Now it’s going forward whether Markley likes it or not, Occhiogrosso said.
Even with it going forward, Markley, Betts and Sampson have persistently attacked it as a waste of money for a transportation option no one will use. Standing near grave site a few feet from where the rapid transit bus route will someday pass, Markley said the dead are now being disturbed by the project.
“It’s even interfering with the peace of the grave, the one thing one counts on,” he said.
Kevin Nursick, a Transportation Department spokesman, said the department and the contractors used to clear the trees went to great lengths to make sure the cemetery was respected and nothing was damaged. If sawdust from the tree clearing landed on headstones, someone was careful to dust it off at the end of the day, he said.
“We even had protocol established if a funeral was taking place we would stop work a half hour before it started and would not commence work until a half hour after it ended,” Nursick said.
“We understand that loved ones are buried there, including some family members of people who worked on the tree crew,” he said.
Proponents of the project cite the several thousand jobs it’s creating in the state’s badly ailing construction industry. Ed Reilly of the Hartford Building Trades Council said the administration isn’t the only group of people tired of hearing about the anti-busway events.
“We’ve had 40 percent unemployment in the construction industry for years. These constant assaults are aggravating us too,” he said. “I’ve got people with no income, people who couldn’t heat their homes in the winter. It’s that bad and people have got to understand that.”
The busway project is expected to create 3,000 jobs over several years, something Reilly calls “a blessing” for the construction industry. He said it will also help the poor and disadvantaged have access to transportation and even educational opportunities in New Britain. Reilly said he’s grown frustrated with busway opponents.
“After awhile, I have to say to myself, ‘Why don’t they care?’ Not everyone’s pocket is full of money,” he said.
Construction workers even showed up at one of the lawmakers’ anti-busway press conference in April to boo at them.
But the busway opponents argue it’s not a personal crusade on their part, they’re just working on behalf of upset constituents.
“On a daily basis we’re being asked to do whatever we can to stop this busway,” Betts said.