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    Connecticut hopes to sell riders on bus-only route

    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 vehicles 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 MetroHartford Alliance, which leads the region’s economic development efforts.

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    The state is budgeting about $3 million, 80 percent of which comes from the federal government, for an 18- to 24-month marketing effort on radio, billboards, movie theater ads, and the Internet.

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    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 skeptical that it is 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 that CTfastrak will reach that number before 2030 as current ridership increases with service that is 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. It’s the biggest transit project we’ve done from scratch.’’

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    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 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.

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    Mayor Stephen Woods of Newington 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.’’