Legislative panel to study DOT’s handling of highway projects

The General Assembly’s chief investigative panel will spend much of this summer and fall trying to find ways to get state transportation projects done quicker and under budget.

But while advocates of the Program Review and Investigations Committee study are hopeful it will lead to positive change, they also concede it likely won’t be enough to overcome state and federal funding problems, aging highway and mass transit systems, and projected shortfalls in operating funds and the Department of Transportation’s five-year capital budget.

“We wanted a study in an area where it could have the greatest effect in terms of dollars,” Sen. Donald J. DeFronzo, D-New Britain, a member of the program review panel and co-chairman of the legislature’s Transportation Committee, said Thursday. “The current situation is frustrating, it’s demoralizing, and sometimes it’s the poster child for how you don’t want things to go.”

DeFronzo is one of many state officials, labor leaders, transportation advocates and others who argue Connecticut has fallen short in its efforts over the past five years to reverse decades of neglect of its transportation network.

The 2005 General Assembly and Gov. M. Jodi Rell ordered $2.3 billion in total bonding in 2005 and 2006 – the single largest capital investment in the system in state history. To help pay for it, officials also increased the state’s wholesale tax on gasoline and other fuels for three successive years from 2005 to 2007.

Since then, however, the Department of Transportation first saw many projects bog down amid record-setting inflation leading up to the start of the recession in March 2008. The DOT reported two years ago that costs for diesel fuel and bituminous liquid asphalt – two staples for highway construction projects – had shot up 168 percent and 177 percent, respectively, over the previous four years.

And while inflationary spikes tailed off after the economy slipped, federal aid has been cut back, and more reductions are likely in the next year, DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said.

Further complicating matters, nearly 60 percent of the roughly $1.5 billion state government has collected from the wholesale fuel tax since the 2005-06 fiscal year has been spent outside of the Special Transportation Fund, according to budget records. A $1.1 billion component within an overall state budget of $18.64 billion for this fiscal year, the fund is backed largely by state fuel tax revenues and federal grants, and is the primary source of funding for transportation network maintenance and new construction,

The legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis projected in a May report that the fund would fall into deficit, about $42.2 million, by 2011-12. That same report projected the general fund, which represents more than 90 percent of the total budget, faces a $3.37 billion built-in shortfall in 12 months.

“The state is facing fundamental, pressing challenges with the existing transportation infrastructure,” Nursick said.  “We have finite funding and face a very uncertain future funding outlook.”

As a result, Nursick added, the department has “shelved many new-build-type projects” and is focusing almost exclusively on simply trying to maintain the highways, roads, bridges, rail cars and buses Connecticut already has.

But the average age for a state bridge is 50 years, and most of the state’s highway system was constructed in the 1950s, making it roughly the same age. “They are all reaching their senior years at the same time,” Nursick said.

In a report issued earlier this year, the department projected a $926.4 million gap between the cost of planned highway, bridge and transit projects for the next five years, and the level of anticipated funding available.

DeFronzo said the program review study is not expected to work miracles, but look for any solutions to help get more projects completed on time and under budget.

Toward that end, the New Britain lawmaker said he wants to see the committee staff explore whether the DOT can accelerate timetables with better cooperative planning at early stages with other key agencies, such as the Department of Environmental Protection.

DeFronzo also said transportation officials should work more closely with the state’s economic development staff to ensure highway and other improvements complement economic development initiatives whenever possible.

Matt O’Connor, spokesman for the Connecticut State Employees Association, said the DOT is “ripe for reform, but there’s nothing new about that.”

The CSEA represents about 1,000 unionized engineers, planners, safety analysts and inspectors at the department.

Program review staff must submit a final report and recommendations to the committee in December. Any recommendations adopted by the panel are expected to form the basis for proposed legislation to be introduced in the regular 2011 General Assembly session, which begins in January.