Hopefuls take the easy road
Experts say candidates’ plans don’t meet challenge of state’s transportation crisis
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 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, experts said.
“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 deficits, 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, 30year 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 lipservice” to one of the most critical issues facing the state.
Toll or not
Stefanowksi, along with his Republican counterparts 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 Trumplike 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 investment 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.”
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.