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Lamont’s vision for transportation — and how he’ll sell it

A Metro-North train passes through East Norwalk.

This story was published Wednesday on CTMirror.org. CT2030 is online.

 

A $21 billion transportation plan Gov. Ned Lamont intends to begin promoting Thursday would touch every aspect of Connecticut’s highway and rail system over the next decade, expanding and improving Metro-North, unclogging highway bottlenecks, replacing aging bridges and connecting Bradley International Airport to a more robust regional rail system. 

To finance a vision Lamont says is vital to economic growth, the governor would rely on a hybrid plan that combines a greatly down-sized version of the poorly received tolls system he proposed in February with elements of the Republican alternative that prioritizes current bonding capacity on transportation, mixing in a new reliance on low-cost federal financing.

Passenger car tolls of 50-cents to $1 would be charged on 14 bridges, with 20 percent discounts to Connecticut drivers with EZ pass transponders, dropping the cost to 40 cents or 80 cents depending on time of day.  Heavy trucks would pay between $3.50 and $7, less with a Connecticut EZ pass.

There would be five tolls on I-95 , three to the west of New Haven and two to the east of the Connecticut River,  at least one on the Merritt Parkway and three on I-84. Here is the list.

The CT2030 blueprint offers what Lamont’s original effort did not: It draws a vivid picture of what the plan would buy and how commutes would be improved by better highways, safer bridges and commuter rail cars that could reach speeds of 110 miles per hour and offer modern conveniences of wi-fi and mobile charging.

A web site will go live Thursday, allowing residents to explore what the new rail and highway system would look like, what changes it could deliver and what it would cost. To sell it, Lamont must overcome nine-months of controversy over an original tolls proposal that betrayed a campaign promise to toll only trucks.

The administration acknowledges that the botched presentation in February greatly complicates the current task, costing time and political capital the new governor can ill afford. The delay in overhauling the original plan has pushed the debate ever closer to 2020, when every member of the General Assembly is up for election and Lamont is not.

Plans reviewed by the CT Mirror show a defter political touch missing in February.

CT2030 offers a portion of tolls revenue to affected communities, building a constituency for passage. And it responds to complaints by small businesses that tolls would be ruinous, effectively capping their tolling costs. Within a 24 hour period, any vehicle equipped with a transponder would not pay more than one round-trip user fee per gantry.

About $2 billion in track improvements and new cars for Metro-North would answer the calls by business leaders in Fairfield County for a faster and more reliable ride into New York City and within the county, and they address long-ignored needs by modernizing signals that currently require slower trips than decades ago and replacing century-old swing bridges prone to failure. The Waterbury line would be connected to Grand Central in New York.

Those elements are intended to not only meet needs, but entice skeptical down-state Republican lawmakers.

“Once complete, this group of projects will be the reason trains will run approximately 15-20 minutes faster than currently,” the administration says.

To highway commuters, Lamont points to the completed  I-84 widening project in Waterbury that the Department of Transportation says has reduced rush-hour travel time from 30 minutes to 4 minutes, cut monthly traffic crashes from 38 to 3, and saved Connecticut drivers 9,300 hours a day.

“In the next decade, we can replicate that success across the state,” the administration says in an executive summary obtained by the CT Mirror. “CT2030 creates a multi-modal, congestion-reduced Connecticut through smart enhancement projects that remove stoplights from Route 9, replace unreliable 19t​h​ century and early 20th century railroad bridges, and expand air service in south-central Connecticut.”

The plan calls for a study of bringing significant commercial air services to either Tweed in New Haven or Sikorsky in Stratford.

“In CT2030, roads will be swift and safe, trains will be fast and functional, and travel across our state will be quicker, safer, more convenient, and more reliable. Our residents deserve the economic growth and time with their families that this investment will unleash,” the administration says in its summary pitch.

Examples of highway improvements include lanes to be added to I-95 from Greenwich to Bridgeport, cutting drive times by 35%, the plan says. In Hartford, the interchange of I-91 and I-84 would be revamped and a lane would be added to the approach of Charter Oak Bridge on I-91, now a notorious source of traffic backups.

Bradley would have a transit connection to a new rail station in Windsor Locks on a Hartford Line that now runs between Springfield and Hartford and south to Metro-North in New Haven.

The projects would produce 26,000 jobs in every year of the 10-year timeline.

 

How we’ll pay for it

While Lamont has briefed lawmakers, one of the keys to passage will be vetting the complex plan for financing, something that cannot begin in earnest until the non-partisan Office of Fiscal Analysis is able to begin reviewing the numbers and rationale behind them.

The governor proposes to restore billions in sales tax receipts to transportation, pump $16 million annually into affected communities, and set new efficiency quotas for the Department of Transportation. Net toll receipts, once projected at $740 million per year, will drop to $320 million.

Lamont would dedicate a huge chunk of that revenue, an average of $136 million per year, to pay cash for projects, saving millions in annual interest costs. Connecticut currently finances nearly all work with state borrowing and federal grants — an approach Lamont has questioned repeatedly.

“The governor is not compromising on the overarching goals and objectives for what he is trying to achieve, which is fundamentally transforming the state’s infrastructure,” Ryan Drajewicz, Lamont’s chief of staff, said last week of the new approach. “He is not compromising on that vision, but he is compromising on the way to achieve it.”

 Connecticut now spends about $1.6 billion per year on its aging, overcrowded transportation network — about $400 million less than DOT officials say is necessary to maintain a state of good repair and make key strategic enhancements. DOT operations and borrowing for transportation are now funded through a Special Transportation Fund that is supported by fuel taxes, fees and certain sales taxes.

It is approaching insolvency. Lamont’s plan promises a return to solvency, plus a 15% reserve fund, without increasing sales and income taxes.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who struggled with budget deficits throughout much of his tenure, spent much of his second term pushing for a legal “lockbox” — an amendment to the state Constitution to prohibit officials from using transportation revenues for other purposes. And while voters ratified the lockbox amendment in 2018, legislators wouldn’t back tolls for Malloy.

Lamont was accused of violating the lockbox — in spirit if not by letter of the law — when he unveiled his original plans for tolls and a transportation rebuild.

The Democratic governor irked Republican legislators in particular when he proposed scaling back a previously approved plan to dedicate a portion of sales tax receipts for transportation and its adds to the political suspicions he faces with the GOP and the public at large. The administration reasoned this was legally permissible since the gradually escalating transfers — though already adopted in law — hadn’t actually occurred yet.

In an overture to the GOP, Lamont’s latest plan puts the state’s finances back on the original transfer schedule starting in 2022.

But that also would make it harder for Lamont to keep overall state finances in balance during the second half of his term. The Special Transportation Fund would gain and the General Fund would lose  $276 million in the 2021-22 fiscal year and almost $370 million the year after that.

By 2030, sales tax transfers to transportation will have exceeded $3.6 billion if the governor’s plan is approved.

Lamont also hopes to overcome that resistance by minimizing the revenue raised by tolls in his plan. A 20% discount for Connecticut E-Z pass holders and a one-toll-per-day-per-gantry policy are expected to save motorists more than $90 million per year. The administration estimates 61% of the $318 million tolls would generate annually after discounts would come from car drivers, while the remainder would come from trucks, and 38% would be paid by out-of-state motorists.

The reduced scale of the tolling plan comes with a trade-off: less revenue from motorists means less road, bridge and rail repairs. The state’s $1.6 billion annual investment in transportation work would rise beyond the $2 billion mark four times between now and 2030. But it only would average $1.9 billion per year over the coming decade.

In other words, legislators would be asked to take the political heat for enacting tolls and the transportation rebuild investment still is not projected to reach the full level requested by DOT officials.

Lamont’s plan also hinges on the DOT addressing a longstanding challenge and improve its efficiency at launching and managing new projects. Starting in 2022, the department would be required to enhance the capital program by $33 million in annual savings. For example, the DOT would be expected to rely more heavily on “design-build projects” which rely on a single firm to provide both design and construction services.

As far back as 2010, the legislature’s former Program Review and Investigations Committee concluded the department was finding it increasingly difficult to complete projects on time and under budget. But the committee also noted the DOT had lost considerable staffing in the 1990s and the 2000s. 

While Malloy and the legislature spared the DOT from the staffing cuts many agencies faced between 2011 and 2018, overall full-time staff positions at the department grew just 2% during that period.

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