HARTFORD, Connecticut — Business leaders along the route of the $567 million bus-only corridor in central Connecticut are stepping in to pump up support for the massive project.
The Newington Chamber of Commerce organized a networking meeting Wednesday morning on a bus built for the new CTfastrak transit system, picking up business representatives along the route there. The aim is to familiarize business owners and representatives with the route, the buses specially ordered for the corridor and how the new mass transit system will work.
"Until it's up and running, I don't think people know what to expect," said Gail Whitney, executive director of the Newington Chamber of Commerce. "People are definitely aware of it, hopefully in a positive vein."
The more than half-billion dollar cost has appalled critics who tried for years to block the project. But Timothy Stewart, president of the New Britain Chamber of Commerce, said the public is accepting the 9.4-mile corridor between Hartford and New Britain as a done deal, six months before it is set to begin service.
"Marketing has taken a foothold and people see what it can do for them," he said.
Stewart attended the Newington networking meeting and plans one for New Britain in the next month.
The CTfastrak corridor is being promoted by state transportation officials as a fast, efficient and environmentally-friendly commute between Hartford and New Britain. It will run almost entirely on a dedicated two-lane highway, with a short loop in Hartford.
Business owners also see the bus-only corridor as a potential boost for economic development, bringing customers to downtowns and easing workers' commutes.
"I always hope it'll be good for business, if it can do something about hubs, build up shopping areas," Whitney said.
Connecticut's bus rapid transit system hasn't lacked for critics.
Senate Republican leader John McKinney said the bus-only corridor "is not the right way to spend a half-billion dollars."
Other transportation projects — Metro-North Railroad, highway repair and construction and upgrades of aging bridges — command more attention and tax dollars, McKinney said.
"We live in a world where we don't have unlimited resources," he said. "It's irresponsible to spend money on the busway."
Local public relations efforts that promote CTfastrak are welcomed by the state Department of Transportation, but they're not organized by the agency, said Michael Sanders, the DOT's transit administrator. Rules restrict the use of state money for private use of the buses, but that doesn't mean the state is taking a hands-off approach to private promotion.
"If you want to rent a bus, we'll hire a tour guide," Sanders said.
State transportation officials scheduled three public meetings earlier this year, displaying maps and presenting details about the project. Last month, the Department of Transportation invited Lt. Nancy Wyman, state lawmakers and others to a news conference at the Capitol to show off the 40-foot bus built exclusively for the corridor.
Barbara Lerner, executive director of the West Hartford Chamber of Commerce, said the business group will tour stations in West Hartford when they're complete. The time for opposition is over, she said.
"It's happening so you've got to jump on board and work with it," Lerner said.
Follow Stephen Singer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SteveSinger10