Bill provides for branch line upgrades

A transportation funds “lockbox” and electrification of the Danbury and New Canaan branch lines were among the elements of SB 975, the omnibus transportation bill passed by the state Senate Sunday evening, June 2. Sen. Toni Boucher (R-26) voted in favor of the bill.

“It’s called the DOT aircraft carrier bill,” she said Tuesday, explaining it is a conglomeration of bills submitted over the legislative session. As of Tuesday, it had not been voted on in the House, but was expected to pass.

“Gail Lavielle and I put together a lot of bills having to do with the rail line and lockbox,” Ms. Boucher said.

The idea of a lockbox is meant to ensure money in the Special Transportation Fund is not used for any purpose other than transportation. It has often been raided to help balance the state budget.

“They rob it every year,” Ms. Boucher said. “Last year it was $75 million, this budget is $98 million.” Unfortunately, she added, it does not go into effect until July 1, 2015. “That gives them two more years to rob it,” she said.

Ms. Lavielle (R-143), a ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation had introduced several bills in 2012 and 2013 that would require transportation revenues to be used only for transportation purposes, as opposed to being funneled into the general fund. She applauded the Senate’s action.

“Despite our pressing need for not only improvement, but also repair and maintenance, of our transportation infrastructure, the state never seems to have the necessary funds.” she said. “While we can debate whether raising more revenue is necessary, it remains true that the transportation-related revenues we do raise from mass transit fares and gasoline taxes have never been safe from plunder for other purposes.

“This way of managing our transportation dollars is not a responsible way to manage our infrastructure,” she continued. “It is also particularly unfair to commuters and other mass transit users. They should not have to bear the burden of spending that the state can’t afford.”

Rail improvement

The bill also requires the commissioner of transportation to develop a railroad modernization plan to improve the state’s commuter railroad service and infrastructure. This plan includes the electrification of all branches of the New Haven Line, including the Danbury and New Canaan branch lines, before Jan. 1, 2023 and the expansion of commuter parking at rail stations. The bill requires the DOT commissioner to submit these plans to the legislature’s Transportation Committee by Feb. 1, 2015 for further action.

Electrification of the branch lines was another issue for which both Ms. Boucher and Ms. Lavielle lobbied.

“It is good policy to prioritize rail investments where demand already exists and where, therefore, an immediate return on investment is highly likely,” Ms. Lavielle said. “The Danbury Line is the most antiquated rail line in the country, and it is the one where investment would have the most significant effect on improving service and has the greatest potential to increase ridership.”