Lawmakers fear rail funding could drain other projects

As the governor’s office prepares to commit $260 million for the planned New Haven-to-Springfield rail project, two key state lawmakers say they want to know how that will affect other efforts to maintain and upgrade an aging, congested transportation network.

Sen. Donald J. DeFronzo, D-New Britain, and Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, co-chairmen of the Transportation Committee, said they support the rail project, for which the state is seeking $220 million in federal money. But, they said, the $260 million the state would put up will likely come at the expense of other projects.

But Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s office said Monday that while the administration has been “critically assessing” infrastructure needs to ensure that the most vital projects are funded, tough choices must be made during times of limited resources.

The Rell administration is working to meet an Aug. 6 deadline to apply for a share of up to $2.5 billion in new competitive federal transportation grants. According to the governor’s office, the administration will ask the State Bond Commission to commit $260 million in state financing to bolster Connecticut’s application for $220 million in federal aid – all tied to the New Haven-to-Springfield project.

“We have all worked hard to advance the New Haven-to-Springfield plan, and no one wants to delay potential federal support for such a strategically important project,” DeFronzo said in a letter to Rell. But, he said, the legislature should be told what  “yet-unspecified transportation projects may be delayed or even canceled as a result of this decision” to commit so much state bond money.

A commitment of that size “raises some big concerns,” said Guerrera. “I can understand Don’s position. We also can’t abandon our roads and bridges. We have to know we are keeping those up-to-date.”

The two legislators are not the first to express concern about the state’s overall ability to maintain its transportation network, let alone advance key strategic initiatives designed to relieve highway congestion, such as the commuter line.

In a report issued earlier this year, the Department of Transportation 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.

The legislature’s chief investigative panel, the Program Review and Investigations Committee, will spend much of this summer and fall on a new study trying to find ways to get state transportation projects done quicker and under budget in a new era of limited federal funding.

And the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis projected in a May report that the Special Transportation Fund – a $1.2 billion component within an overall state budget of $19.01 billion – 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.

“For many good reasons we agree on the need to move forward with the New Haven-to-Springfield project,” DeFronzo wrote. “But the cost of this ($260 million) commitment in terms of bonded debt and negative impact on other pending transportation projects cannot be ignored. I only ask that this reality be acknowledged and that the Transportation Committee and members of the General Assembly be given the opportunity to fully comprehend the serious consequences such a decision will likely have on the balance of the state’s transportation plan.”

Rell’s office responded in writing Monday that state transportation officials have spent more than a year “critically assessing state transportation infrastructure construction and repair needs and balancing those needs with available state and federal funding.” The program they developed “contained a frank admission that there would never be enough state and federal funding to undertake every project requested by state legislators, municipal officials, state officials and federal representatives,” the governor’s statement continued. “Wishes and wants far outstrip the ability of any government to pay for them.”

The rail project was recommended as a crucial economic development tool more than seven years ago by the state’s Transportation Strategy Board. It involves providing train service during the morning and afternoon peak travel periods along an existing Amtrak-owned, 62-mile rail line linking New Haven and Springfield and nine other Connecticut communities, including Hartford, between them.

The line is single-track in some locations in Connecticut and double-track in others, including all portions of the line in Massachusetts. Plans call for bi-directional weekday service during both morning and evening commuting periods.