Branch lines may benefit from governor's transportation plan

Governor Dannel Malloy chose the rest area overlooking I-84 in Danbury to hold a press conference this morning on a transportation plan he described as “first class,” “comprehensive,” and “about the future.” While some of his remarks centered on the highway behind him, he directed some of his remarks to rail transportation, particularly the Danbury branch line.

Gov. Dannel Malloy will present a comprehensive 30-year transportation plan — five years to “ramp up” and 25 years of construction — to the General Assembly on Feb. 18, but two items he mentioned specifically on Thursday, Jan. 22, were the extension of the Danbury branch rail line to New Milford and widening of I-84 to three lanes “in its entirety,” particularly in the Danbury area where the evening rush hour backups are long and lengthy. The state Department of Transportation is now focused on widening a five-mile section of the highway between Exits 3 and 8 .

The I-84 corridor through the western part of the state carries 125,000 vehicles on an average weekday.

The governor’s plan will be all encompassing including bikeways, trails, buses, rail, airports and highways, but he would not be specific on what was a priority except to say “everything will be a priority.”

Both he and DOT Commissioner James Redeker did say the focus on rail would be commutation and freight.

“Each of the branch lines has been through extensive studies,” Mr. Redeker said. They include Danbury, New Canaan and Waterbury.

The emphasis will be on expanded service and improved service. Although they are secondary to the main passenger line, he said the branch lines offer “extraordinary opportunities” for development and will be a “major focus” of the plan.

Budgeting will have to begin almost immediately to “build the capacity within the Department of Transportation to do the things we have to do,” Mr. Malloy said.

As for where the money will come from, he was not specific. “We are not focused on funding now,” but did indicate there may be public partnerships and design-build opportunities. To a question about paying for the plan with tolls, he said, “There are many ways to pay for transportation improvements,” adding a toll is essentially a tax on motorists.

“We have to make the investment,” he said, or “continue to complain” about the state of transportation.

“We are paying for a lack of investment over two generations,” Mr. Malloy said.

“I didn’t get elected or re-elected to stand around and do what everyone else has done.”

Among the state officials present at the gathering was state Rep. Gail Lavielle, who said she agrees with the governor in that “it has to be looked at as a big plan.

“Infrastructure projects are long-term and the funding is also long-term,” she said, adding they are ripe for bonding. “When you issue bonds [for infrastructure] the project outlives the life of the bond.

“To reduce the conversation to tolls or the [transportation funds] lockbox is a fallacy,” she said.

Many legislators have complained of repeated raiding of special transportation funds — collected through gasoline taxes and commuter rail tickets — by this and past administrations, but the funds taken in the past biennium amount to about $120 million, she said. Tolls are projected to raise about $60 to $80 million a year, she added.

“That’s nothing. Just to fix the Metro-North bridges and catenaries and a few other projects would cost about $3.6 billion,” she said.

When Mr. Malloy presents his plan, Ms. Lavielle said the questions that need to be asked are:

• What do we need?

• How much will it cost?

• How long will it take?

• What do we do first?

For her part, she believes “you have to give serious consideration to where you have the highest usage, and with 39 million riders a year [on the commuter rail lines] that’s pretty high usage to me.”

Ms. Lavielle said she was “thrilled” to hear Mr. Malloy mention the Danbury branch line. “He seems to be calling attention to it and that’s a good sign.”

The last estimate to modernize the Danbury line was “in the $300-million” range,” she said. The New Canaan line would cost much less.

Ms. Lavielle said she has submitted two rail bills, one to extend the Danbury branch to New Milford and one to modernize and electrify the line.

After Mr. Malloy presents his plan, the legislature will decide the budget. If bonding is chosen as the way to go, the legislature authorizes the total amount but the money would be allocated through the bond commission, which is controlled by the governor.

“I agree completely with the governor you have to have an open discussion about how much it will cost,” she said of the transportation plan, “but we must have an open and honest discussion about the [overall] budget situation.”