Letter from Hartford: Breaking Connecticut’s transportation impasse

Given the many issues with our commuter rail service, the congestion of our highways, and the poor condition of our roads and bridges, the focus on transportation during this legislative session is welcome news to most people. But what is the goal, and where are we in the process?
There are two components of what is happening with transportation in Hartford. One is establishing a statewide infrastructure plan, an area where Gov. Malloy has taken ownership. The other is determining how to pay for it, a task he has left to the legislature.

The infrastructure plan

Last month, the administration released its transportation plan, called “Let’s Go CT,” in two brochures. One, Connecticut’s 5-Year Transportation Ramp-Up Plan, provides a list of   “immediate short-term investments,” with costs for each, and a total budget of $2.8 billion for the five years, to be spent on top of the baseline DOT budget (which includes, for example, projects already on the books like the WALK railroad bridge). The other, Connecticut’s Bold Vision for a Transportation Future, provides “the long-term, 30-year vision for Connecticut transportation.” The budget estimate for the 30-year plan is $100 billion.
The brochures include project cost estimates, but do not speak to funding sources.

Funding options

Several mechanisms for funding transportation infrastructure in general are being discussed in the legislature, but they are not attached to particular projects.
Transportation lockbox . While a law passed in 2013 is meant to protect transportation funds from being diverted for other purposes, it’s generally accepted that the language should be stronger. The administration and most legislators are supporting even more rigorous statutory language, as well as a constitutional amendment, to ensure that funds budgeted for transportation are used for nothing else.
Long-term bonding . House and Senate Republicans have made a detailed proposal for reallocating a portion of the state’s projected general obligation bonding every year to transportation, in order to make available $1 billion annually for transportation infrastructure over a 30-year period. The proposal includes no new taxes, tolls, or borrowing increases.
Tolls . The Transportation Committee has held a public hearing on a bill allowing highway border tolls. Federal restrictions on ordinary tolls and low revenue potential may well kill the bill if overwhelming public opposition doesn’t do it first. Although there are no other bills suggesting alternatives like tolled express lanes that drivers can choose to take or not, or congestion pricing, which involves higher tolls during rush hours and lower or no tolls at other times, options like these may be considered later in the session through an amendment or another process. While the same federal restrictions don’t apply to these mechanisms, the revenue potential still appears limited.

What’s the bottom line?

A plan for the five-year “ramp-up” period, with a sequence and order of priority, exists, and the governor’s proposed budget includes $800 million in bonding to fund the first two years of it, with appropriations to pay for the debt service.
A bill before the legislature proposes a $2-billion bond authorization for years three-five of the plan, but there’s no anticipated funding stream to pay the $800 million estimated for debt service.
The list of initiatives for the last 25 years of the 30-year plan is not organized by priority, and has no time sequence. There is no projected funding source. It is, today, a wish list without prioritization or certainty of fulfillment.
Finding the funds to pay for the plan is no small thing, because the legislature is wrestling with a budget mess of considerable magnitude: a current-year $100-million deficit and a $2.8-billion deficit for the next two years. This situation casts a pall over ambitious future spending plans, even when they focus on an area as critical as transportation infrastructure. It also raises the question of whether state government would use any new revenue wisely if it can’t control spending and manage the revenue it already collects.
The truth is that it’s probably not time yet to be either too excited or too worried about any initiatives in the transportation plan beyond the next two years. Until the state’s finances are in order, it may be difficult to break through Connecticut’s transportation impasse.

State Rep. Gail Lavielle represents the 143rd District, which includes parts of Wilton, Norwalk, and Westport.