Report shows age is catching up with Connecticut’s transportation network

Connecticut’s transportation network is facing its own perfect storm of aging infrastructure, heavy usage and harsh weather conditions – all compounded by a slumping economy and shrinking government funding, according to a draft report from the state’s Transportation Strategy Board.

The position paper outlining transportation needs, the first of four components that will ultimately comprise the board’s 2011 update to its statewide transportation strategy, warns this confluence of bad conditions could require a major investment – despite the state’s fiscal crisis – unless Connecticut wants to risk its economic future.

About 6 percent of the state’s highway bridges and 27 percent of its railway bridges, nearly 300 structures in total, were rated structurally deficient, with at least one major structural component – such as its deck or substructure – not capable of carrying all legal loads. A structurally deficient bridge can provide several years of service before receiving the necessary work to restore it to fair or better condition, the report adds.

According to state Department of Transportation data, the number of structurally deficient bridges is at its highest level since 1993. And things could quickly get worse.

Much of the interstate highway system in this state was built in the 1950s and 1960s, and many of the bridges that serve it have a 40-60 year life span. The state maintains about 3,900 highway bridges and about 200 rail bridges and just over 2,850 were built prior to 1970.

“Even maintaining what we have under such intense use and demanding conditions is straining our financial resources,” the report reads. “It leaves us little ability to improve our systems or expand capacity to meet growing demand.”

Nearly 60 percent of Connecticut’s highway pavement, about 2,200 miles, was found to be in less than good condition when inspected between 2006 and 2008, the report states.

Connecticut’s highways serve 110,000 to 170,000 vehicles per day, with truck traffic representing 10 to 15 percent of that amount, one of the busiest rates in the nation, the report states. The same is true of the New Haven commuter rail line, which serves 36 million passengers per year.

Former Monroe First Selectwoman Karen Burnaska, a member of the strategy board, said Tuesday she wasn’t surprised by the types of problems outlined in the draft of the first component of the 2011 update. “That wasn’t really a shock,” she said. “What was shocking is that we have so many needs. We know we have a lot of good projects that we won’t be able to fund unless something changes.”

Further complicating matters, the funding needed to deal with this challenge simply isn’t available, the report states.

“For over a decade, our usual transportation funding programs have been inadequate to support our transportation infrastructure needs,” the board wrote, adding that reductions in the gas tax, unfavorable changes in federal funding and inflation “has left us without the financial capacity to either maintain or expand our systems.

Between 1997 and 2000 the state legislature and then-Gov. John G. Rowland lowered the state’s retail gasoline tax from 39 cents per gallon to 32 cents in three stages. The legislature and Gov. M. Jodi Rell increased the state’s wholesale tax on gasoline and other fuels from 5 to 7.5 percent between July 2005 and July 2007.

But 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 on non-transportation programs, according to budget records.

According to Rell’s office, annual spending on bridge repair has grown considerably in recent years, jumping from $105.5 million in 2007 to $304.3 million last fiscal year.

Still, the board wrote in its report that a lack of funding has created “a large backlog of deferred repair, reconstruction and replacement projects.”

The new report estimates Connecticut will face annual gaps of $300 million to $500 million through 2014 between the cost of maintaining its transportation network, and its likely available funding.

And if Connecticut wants not only to maintain its transportation network, but improve it, the annual gap moves closer to $1 billion.

Nonpartisan legislative analysts estimate that the Special Transportation Fund, a $1.2 billion component within an overall state budget of $19.01 billion, would fall more than $42 million into deficit in 2011-12.

Though the board didn’t address the funding shortfall in this component of its 2011 update, the issue of funding is expected to be addressed in later stages.

“We must meet the challenge. We have to restore our infrastructure to a state of good repair while also improving our systems and their performance,” the draft states. “Continuing to defer needed repairs and improvements will only increase the backlog of projects and will threaten future economic growth in the state.”

Created by the General Assembly in 2001, the Transportation Strategy Board was charged with developing long-range strategies to improve the state’s congested transportation network and foster economic development.

The panel, which issues a new comprehensive strategy every four years, prepared the latest draft as part of an ongoing effort to update its 2007 strategy early next year. Other components of the 2011 update are expected to address projections on the funding needed both to maintain the current transportation network and to make improvement; key projects needed to ease highway congestion; impacts that both the current system and proposed projects could have on future economic development; and funding options for transportation initiatives.

Donald J. Shubert, spokesman for Keep CT Moving, a transportation advocacy coalition composed of labor and business groups, praised the strategy board for acknowledging a neglected infrastructure, but said the group’s real test will come later, when it decides whether to recommend sources of funding for major new investment in transportation.

“We still have to dig up the money to expand our capacity and to operate it,” he said.

Sen. Robert Duff, vice chairman of the legislature’s Transportation Committee, said the key to attacking the problems raised by the strategy board while dealing with a $3.4 billion deficit projected for next year’s state budget is prioritization.

“If a project will help grow jobs in Connecticut, then I think we have to look at it,” said Duff, a Norwalk Democrat whose home community lies amid some of the most congested highways in the Northeast. “Ultimately it all comes down to how this affects our economic future.”