Grumman Hill project may be victim of state funding woes

State engineer William Britnell’s warning that state funds for proposed improvements to the Route 7 intersection at Grumman Hill Road might be hard to come by came to fruition Jan. 10 by way of an announcement from Gov. Dannel Malloy’s office.

The $2.67-million project was one of hundreds of state transportation projects, totalling $4.3 billion, on hold indefinitely after Malloy announced the state’s Special Transportation Fund will need new revenue. Britnell warned state funding, which would account for 20% of the project along with federal money, was questionable at a public meeting on the project last month at Trackside.

Malloy said his administration will announce detailed proposals later this month, ahead of the next legislative session, to get money into the transportation fund and allow projects to go back online. The special transportation fund finances the state’s transportation system, including operating the Department of Transportation and all of the services it provides.

This follows on the heels of an announcement earlier this week that rail riders may face a 10% fare hike as soon as July, followed by 5% increases in 2020 and 2021.

In addition, off-peak reductions in weekday trains on the branch lines, including the Danbury branch, were threatened, as well as eliminating weekend service.

Of those increases, state Senator Toni Boucher (R-26) told The Bulletin, “I have looked at the increases commuters have had to bear sine 2012, the increases have been huge, 18-19% over that time already. In essence that service hasn’t appreciably improved.”

Reducing branch line service is something “brought up continuously,” she said.

“They always go to the branch lines because they wholly own those lines. It’s disingenuous. If they improved the branch lines they could increase ridership. [Malloy’s] threatened the towns with massive costs when he tried to bring teacher pension payments down. Now he’s trying to bully Fairfield County with service reductions that only hurt the economy more. It is counter to anything they said that they are pro-business.

“The last thing we need to do is cut back on service,” she continued. “We need better management of funds.”

Of cutting weekend service, Boucher, who is co-chair of the Transportation Committee, said, “there is an assumption people only work Monday through Friday, and that’s not true. It shows a lack of understanding how much the rail lines are used.”

The Danbury branch line runs six trains on weekends and holidays between Wilton to Grand Central Terminal. There are also 12 trains that run during peak hours on weekdays to and from Grand Central and 16 off-peak trains.

While the governor blames the legislature for the special transportation fund’s woes, Boucher lays the problem at Malloy’s feet.

“This is not new news. He spent a lot of the state’s money this summer when he tried to protect state employee benefits. … Wages, healthcare and benefits are way out of line. He actually spent the money himself that can be used for essential services.

“Transportation is an essential state function and should be prioritized with education.”

She also said if the state had salary, benefit, and pension plans for employees similar to municipal plans, “we could solve a lot of financial problems of the state.”

For his part, Malloy warned if the legislature, which convenes in February, does not act, results could be dire. Routine highway maintenance and transportation aide to cities and towns, he said, “are seriously jeopardized.”  

“If Connecticut does not take the necessary action to allow us to restart these vital projects, not only will it put the state’s infrastructure into a further state of disrepair, it will hurt our economy,” Malloy said in a statement. “If we want to compete in the 21st century economy, we need a transportation system that works for people and businesses, and we need to invest in transit-oriented development to build the communities where people and businesses want to be.  I want to be very clear — this is preventable, but it requires immediate action. The legislature must act this year to avoid potentially devastating setbacks to our transportation system.”

Connecticut DOT Commissioner James P. Redeker said the funding problem is not something “that can be punted until future years.”

“As Gov. Malloy noted last month, the solvency of the Special Transportation Fund is in doubt without new revenues. In real terms, that means we need to postpone indefinitely important projects today,” he said.

Boucher said that while public hearings on potential rail fare increases will take place, she is not optimistic the result would benefit commuters.

“This administration controls every department and every commissioner,” she said. “In this case, it is very clear. This is what has been happening with rail fare increases. We have public hearings but then they go about what the governor tells them to do.”

A bill to require changes in rail fares to be approved by the legislature did not pass last time around.

“We will have similar bills this session, you can bank on it,” she said. “We will have a high level of interest.”