Traf­fic snarls road to top job

Can­di­dates dif­fer on road re­pair, bridges

The News-Times (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Bill Cum­mings

More than 300 bridges in Con­necti­cut — car­ry­ing 4.3 mil­lion ve­hi­cles daily — are con­sid­ered struc­turally de­fi­cient.

High­ways in the Bridge­port-Stam­ford area are so con­gested that mo­torists waste 49 hours a year in bumper- to- bumper traf­fic.

And 62 per­cent of Con­necti­cut’s ma­jor roads are in such poor con­di­tion they cost mo­torists $ 681 an­nu­ally in ve­hi­cle re­pairs, ac­cord­ing to TRIP, a na­tional trans­porta­tion think tank.

Given those chal­lenges, the three men seek­ing to re­place Gov. Dan­nel P. Mal­loy could be mak­ing trans­porta­tion the cen­ter­piece of their cam­paigns. But in­stead, th­ese can­di­dates for gov­er­nor are of­fer­ing mostly mod­est plans to fix the state’s in­fras­truc­ture mess.

“From an eco­nomic growth per­spec­tive, trans­porta­tion is the num­ber one is­sue,” said Joseph McGee, vice pres­i­dent for pol­icy at the Busi­ness Coun­cil of Fair­field County. “The state has to in­vest in trans­porta­tion in­fras­truc­ture. The lack of in­vest­ment is hold­ing back eco­nomic growth. It can’t take an hour to get to work. Com­pa­nies will just leave, and we are see­ing that.”

Demo­crat Ned La­mont’s trans­porta­tion plan in­cludes high­way tolls on heavy cargo trucks, which he says will bring in an es­ti­mated $ 350 mil­lion an­nu­ally and help pay for ex­pand­ing air­ports, fos­ter­ing eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment around train sta­tions, faster Metro-North ser­vice and ex­panded bus con­nec­tions.

Repub­li­can Bob Ste­fanowski op­poses tolls and is push­ing a plan that re­lies on un­spec­i­fied bud­get cuts and sav­ings, and re­or­ga­niz­ing the state’s bond­ing pri­or­i­ties, to free up money for trans­porta­tion projects.

In­de­pen­dent can­di­date Oz Griebel fa­vors statewide tolling and would reestab­lish a trans­porta­tion strat­egy board to choose projects sup­ported by the pri­vate and pub­lic sec­tors.

No easy fix

Solv­ing the state’s trans­porta­tion needs is not an easy task, as Mal­loy found out.

And pay­ing for it is even harder.

Per­pet­ual bud­get def- ic­its, re­duced gas tax re­ceipts and dwin­dling fed­eral money has made fund­ing big trans­porta­tion im­prove­ments — with­out a new rev­enue source such as tolls or a larger di­ver­sion of the state in­come tax — more than chal­leng­ing.

Mal­loy pro­posed a sweep­ing $ 100 bil­lion, 30-year plan to ease con­ges­tion and im­prove the state’s ag­ing trans­porta­tion sys­tem.

The out­go­ing Demo­cratic gov­er­nor had some wins — the more than 100 year old Walk rail bridge in Nor­walk is be­ing re­placed, In­ter­state 84 in Water­bury was re­con­fig­ured and a new rail line be­tween Hart­ford and New Haven is ex­ceed­ing ex­pec­ta­tions.

But much of his plan re­mains un­re­al­ized, in­clud­ing widen­ing the most con­gested sec­tions of In­ter­states 95 and 84.

McGee said of­fer­ing long lists to solve the trans­porta­tion prob­lem sounds pro­duc­tive, but a gov­er­nor must also push projects through the Leg­is­la­ture.

“You can come up with a $ 100 bil­lion plan, but it’s get­ting things done that counts,” McGee said.

Jim Cameron, founder of the Com­muter Ac­tion Group and a Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia colum­nist, said he doesn’t see much of a trans­porta­tion plan from the three gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­dates.

“Al­most none of them is talk­ing about trans­porta­tion,” Cameron said. “How can we cre­ate jobs, stop peo­ple from mov­ing out of state, en­cour­age en­trepreneurs or do any­thing to save our econ­omy when we are in a lit­eral and po­lit­i­cal grid­lock?”

Cameron added the can­di­dates mostly “pay lip- ser­vice” to one of the most crit­i­cal is­sues fac­ing the state.

Toll or not

Ste­fanowksi, along with his Repub­li­can counter- parts in the Gen­eral Assem­bly, is firmly against high­way tolls.

“Con­necti­cut tax­pay­ers al­ready have the sec­ond high­est tax bur­den per capita in the na­tion,” Ste­fanowski said in a pre­pared state­ment. The can­di­date de­clined re­quests to be in­ter­viewed by Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia.

“Ned’s plan to put up tolls will only serve to in­crease that bur­den, forc­ing more fam­i­lies and busi­nesses to leave our state,” he said, adding the state can bor­row money through bonds and avoid tolls or tax in­creases.

La­mont said Ste­fanowski’s ap­proach means lit­tle spend­ing on trans­porta­tion and pre­dicted he would do con­sid­er­able dam­age to Con­necti­cut’s econ­omy.

“Ma­jor projects sim­ply will not hap­pen,” La­mont said in a pre­pared state­ment. He also de­clined to be in­ter­viewed.

“Metro-North ser­vice will con­tinue to de­te­ri­o­rate,” La­mont said. “His Trump-like tax ex­per­i­ment will all but guar­an­tee end­ing state in­vest­ments in trans­porta­tion, ul­ti­mately driv­ing busi­nesses away.”

Griebel said he would im­me­di­ately be­gin a pilot toll pro­gram in the Hart­ford area on ex­ist­ing high ve­hi­cle oc­cu­pancy lanes. That tolling could be spread across the state, he said.

“The con­ges­tion is sig­nif­i­cant,” Griebel said in an in­ter­view, adding toll rev­enue will help re­build the state’s trans­porta­tion sys­tem.

“The re­gion from New Haven down must be kept as a vi­able cor­ri­dor,” Griebel noted.

McGee said Stam­ford em­ploy­ers are in­creas­ingly see­ing work­ers come from New Haven, Hart­ford and the towns and cities in be­tween.

“No one likes tolls,” McGee con­ceded. “But we are go­ing to need more op­tions. The lack of in- vest­ment in in­fras­truc­ture has hurt the state’s abil­ity to grow. It was not ad­dressed for the last eight years. There is no ques­tion we need an­other rev­enue source for trans­porta­tion.”

Dif­fer­ent ap­proaches

La­mont and Griebel both sup­port a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment on the bal­lot in Novem­ber that would place a “lock­box” on trans­porta­tion funds and pre­vent law­mak­ers from di­vert­ing those funds to other uses.

Ste­fanowski op­poses the lock­box, say­ing it’s not an ef­fec­tive so­lu­tion be­cause law­mak­ers in the past di­verted money from sim­i­lar lock­boxes.

Much like Mal­loy, La­mont sees a link be­tween high­way grid­lock, ag­ing rail sys­tems and eco­nomic growth.

La­mont wants faster rail ser­vice, pri­vate sec­tor and pub­lic part­ner­ships to lessen the cost of con­struc­tion, in­creased bus con­nec­tions, link­ing the new Hart­ford rail line to Bradley In­ter­na­tional Air­port and in­creas­ing daily round trips be­tween New Haven, Hart­ford and Spring­field, Mass.

“When it comes to re­vi­tal­iz­ing Con­necti­cut’s econ­omy and fix­ing the state’s fis­cal cri­sis, in­vest­ing in 21st cen­tury in­fras­truc­ture is crit­i­cal,” La­mont said.

Other than rev­enue from truck tolls, how­ever, La­mont did not of­fer spe­cific ways to pay for his trans­porta­tion im­prove­ments.

Ste­fanowski sees over­spend­ing and taxes as the cause of the state’s fis­cal and eco­nomic woes.

He said greater ef­fi­ciency and sav­ings, re­duced over­all spend­ing, stream­lin­ing pro­ject ap­proval times, part­ner­ing with fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions and the pri­vate sec­tor and pri­or­i­tiz­ing will free up money for trans­porta­tion work.

“We’ve seen the state con­tinue bond­ing for projects that are not ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary, and which won’t pay div­i­dends through eco­nomic growth, even though the state is in dire fi­nan­cial straits,” Ste­fanowski said.

“We would im­me­di­ately be­gin to de­velop a clear strat­egy to fund our pri­or­i­ties, such as school con­struc­tion and trans­porta­tion, and ad­here strictly to that plan un­til our bud­get is in bet­ter shape,” Ste­fanowski said.

That pitch mir­rors the Repub­li­can cau­cus plan that pledges $ 1 bil­lion an­nu­ally over the next 30 years for trans­porta­tion im­prove­ments with­out tax in­creases or tolls.

Mal­loy and the ma­jor­ity Demo­cratic law­mak­ers have said the GOP plan of­fered by leg­is­la­tors can­not pro­duce the rev­enue it claims.

La­mont said decades of un­der­in­vest­ment in trans­porta­tion can no longer be ig­nored.

“We’re in a com­pe­ti­tion with the world for jobs, and right now, em­ploy­ers view our rail, roads and in­fras­truc­ture as a fun­da­men­tal im­ped­i­ment,” La­mont said.

“That means we have a sim­ple choice: we can ei­ther move into the fu­ture with a mod­ern trans­porta­tion sys­tem that will at­tract com­pa­nies and grow jobs, or we can go back­ward by dis­in­vest­ing,” he said.

Ned Ger­ard / Hearst Con­nec­tiu­cut Me­dia file photo

Com­muter traf­fic on In­ter­state 84 in New­town is heavy dur­ing rush hour.

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