In recent years, commuters crossing the Quinnipiac River on I-95 in New Haven have had more to distract them than veering out of exit-only lanes, avoiding potholes and dodging swarms of fellow drivers.
Cranes and work crews visible from the infamous "Q Bridge" are evidence of a massive, $2.2 billion project to replace the old and overcrowded span-a long-overdue improvement, most area motorists would agree.
But the project stands for more than a smoother ride to work: It is the last highway expansion of its size in Connecticut, at least for the near future, as the state Department of Transportation increasingly turns its attention from roads and bridges to mass transit.
"We're comfortable saying at this point that we can't just go around expanding our highway and bridge infrastructure because we simply don't have the financial resources to maintain that," said Tom Harley, DOT's chief engineer. "Expanding is not our priority. Preserving it is."
Public transportation, meanwhile, is in expansion mode.
Recently the DOT held information meetings on its plans to join with Massachusetts and New York to add train tracks into and out of New Haven and to go "back to the future," as DOT public transportation bureau chief James P. Redeker put it. The plan is for high-speed, affordable passenger rail lines between New Haven, Springfield, and Boston. The trains would be able to go as fast as 110 mph but cost much less than Amtrak, officials said.
Getting to the last of the meetings, during rush hour on June 3, highlighted the problem the state now says it wants to remedy. I-84, which most of the 40 or so attendees had to take to get to the meeting at Hartford's Union Station, was jammed. But the parking lot for the Amtrak line at Union Station had many empty spaces.
Redeker showed charts and maps in a meeting room at the station. He outlined "broad goals" in New England-economic growth, livable communities, less congestion and air pollution, and energy efficiency. "Rail service can certainly help," he said.
The entire plan aims to make rail service regular and quick from Washington DC to Bradley International Airport to Boston and Montreal. Connecticut also wants to improve bus travel in and out of Hartford.
The background of the project to replace the current four-lane Q Bridge-officially the Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge-with a 10-lane span helps illustrate the change in the state's focus.
In 1999, as the project was being planned, the state Department of Environmental Protection suggested that fewer lanes would remove strain from the merges and place less stress on the river below.
DOT officials replied that the five lanes in either direction were necessary in part to prepare for expansion of I-95 east of New Haven.
Now the I-95 expansion is listed as "unfundable" on DOT's latest five-year capital plan, and the DEP analyst who recommended reducing the size of the Q Bridge replacement 11 years ago says today he notices a shift in transportation priorities not only among officials, but also by the public.
"A few years ago [the DOT] had an environmental study where they looked at a train station in either West Haven or Orange," said David J. Fox. "That was in 2006 and they picked West Haven at that point. Now they're coming back out with an environmental study to do the Orange station as well. I recall the public hearing four years ago. Usually when you go to these public hearings, people are saying, 'Don't build it, don't build it.' At this one, there was unanimity, saying, 'Build it.'"
David Kooris, who directs the Connecticut office of the Regional Plan Association, said that his tri-state planning organization was surprised at how quickly the shift in the state's approach has occurred, but very happy with it.
Kooris said it's significant that for the first time the DOT has produced "a list of projects that are unfundable in the near future." In addition to the I-95 expansion, those include completion of Route 11 in southeastern Connecticut and reconstruction of the interchange of Route 8 and I-84 in Waterbury, all with billion-dollar-plus price tags. "No longer do we have this laundry list of big projects that we assume will be funded," Kooris said.
Harley, the DOT engineer, said the agency hasn't abandoned the big projects. "They're out there," he said. "They're unfunded, but they're on our radar screen." But when they do get funded, many of them may be built on a reduced scale, he said.
In part the shift in emphasis has to do with the availability of federal funds for regional transportation projects, augmented by available stimulus money. DOT officials say the Rell administration also has emphasized the need for better mass transit.
Still, a key question remains: Will Connecticut commuters be able to give up their private cars?
"There are certainly influences that we can't control," Harley said. "On a personal level I can't imagine that unless it is really easy and convenient, that people will step out of their cars, until the price of gas goes up substantially."
But he said that if the price of gas does go up dramatically, and the state DOT isn't ready with public transportation options that serve the majority, people would criticize them.
However to weigh the various influences on transportation policy, it has changed, and fast. Environmentalists who have long yelled for something besides car routes might even be caught unawares. DOT investments used to come down 80 percent for highway projects and 20 percent for public transportation, Redeker, who is new to the DOT, said after the rail plan meeting. Now it's close to 50-50.
"It's reflective of the times," he said.
Christine Woodside of Deep River is a freelance writer "interested in how Americans interact with nature and use natural resources." She has written articles for The New York Times and other publications, and previously worked at The Day in New London.