Officials hopeful on transportation plan

WASHINGTON-Connecticut officials and advocates alike embraced the White House’s proposal for a new $50 billion transportation infrastructure program on Tuesday.

But with key details still murky, it’s not clear how much of a boon President Barack Obama’s new plan would be to the state.

And in proposing this new initiative, Obama has highlighted a year-long stalemate in Congress over transportation funding that has disproportionately affected Connecticut.

Obama used the occasion of Labor Day to sketch out the $50 billion road, rail, and runway program, saying it would help spur economic development, create jobs, and revamp the nation’s federal transportation program. He said the program would channel more federal funds through competitive and performance-based grants, moving away from “wasteful earmarks” and “outdated formulas.”

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Dodd will hold hearings on Obama’s infrastructure plan

A centerpiece of the plan is the creation of an “infrastructure bank,” which would include government money as well as private investments to fund for high-priority projects. A similar version of this proposal has been touted for several years by Sen. Chris Dodd and Rep. Rosa DeLauro.

Dodd’s office said Tuesday he is planning a hearing for Sept. 21 on the nation’s infrastructure needs in general and the concept of a “National Infrastructure Bank” in particular. Dodd’s original proposal, like DeLauro’s, was more broadly focused than transportation, including water systems and other infrastructure needs.

“With a National Infrastructure Bank we could leverage state, local and private funds to ensure our infrastructure systems are equipped to meet the demands of the 21st Century,” Dodd said in a statement.

“This is the kind of initiative we need to support the economy and produce long-term job growth,” DeLauro said.

But whether this new White House plan will help spur a fresh solution to the current congressional logjam over transportation funding, or just draw fresh attention to a festering problem, is an open question.

What’s not up for dispute is the need for some kind of federal infusion to help Connecticut and other states deal with long lists of languishing transportation projects, from regular maintenance on old roads and bridges to breaking ground on new rail lines. Connecticut’s Department of Transportation has more than 200 unfunded projects, totaling billions of dollars, in its five-year capital program.

“Federal funding is absolutely critical in terms of being able to move forward” on the state’s transportation to-do list, said Kevin Nursick, a spokesman for Connecticut’s DOT.

“This is drastically needed in Connecticut,” Donald Shubert, a spokesman for Keep CT Moving, a transportation advocacy coalition composed of labor and business groups, said of the White House’s new proposal.

Indeed, Connecticut relies more heavily on federal funding for its capital projects than many other states. A review of 2008 data, the most recent figures available, shows that federal dollars accounted for more than 70 percent of the Connecticut’s capital expenditures. The national average is 54 percent.

Critics say that’s the result of poor planning and underfunding by state leaders. Nursick said he didn’t know the details of the state’s federal funding share, but noted that most other states also rely heavily on Washington for help with major road and transit projects.

No matter what the reason, Congress has not helped the situation in Connecticut with its deadlock over a six-year federal highway bill that expired last September. Instead of writing a new six-year plan mapping out federal transportation spending, Congress has punted and passed several short-term extensions of the measure-keeping the funding flat at 2009 levels.

“Connecticut is overly dependent on federal funding for transportation,” said Shubert. “And our state DOT has been struggling since that long-range federal bill expired last September.”

Nursick agreed that the lack of a new federal bill has “definitely caused some heartburn” at DOT because it prevents the state from being able to plan its budgets very far into the future.  “We don’t know what the next transportation bill is going to look like or what it’s going to be mean” for the state’s bottom line, he said, adding that the state’s current five-year plan assumes level federal funding.

Efforts to pass a new six-year transportation plan have languished in Congress because there’s not enough revenue in the federal highway trust fund to pay for it. A key House subcommittee has drafted a $450 billion proposal, but it has little chance of moving forward, and the Senate has not even tackled a draft of the legislation yet.

“Transportation legislation is usually wildly popular” and filled with projects “in all directions,” noted Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “This year is different because of the financial and funding situation.”

And while Connecticut may be hit particularly hard, Puentes says the multiple short extensions passed by Congress have created an “unpredictable and haphazard” climate for all the states.

So there is significant pressure on Congress to figure out a solution before the latest extension expires in December. Puentes and other advocates say it’s a key opportunity to transform the system, from one that doles out money to states with little attention paid to how the money will be spent, or what results it will produce.

“There’s no connection between goals and outcomes,” he said, noting for example, that if a state says a federally-funded project will reduce congestion, but it doesn’t, there are no penalties.

He and others say the Obama Administration should push for a “Race to the Top” style transportation program, referring to the White House’s new focus in doling out education funds through competitive grants. “It’s all about reorienting decision-making, so we’re making decisions based on fact rather than on pork and politics,” he said.

That appears to be a key goal of the $50 billion initiative. “The plan would reform the way America currently invests in transportation, changing our focus to enhancing competition, innovation, performance, and real analysis that gets taxpayers the best bang for the buck, while moving away from the earmarks and formula debates of the past,” the White House said in a fact sheet on the proposal.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to finance our infrastructure needs, and this seems like a very innovative solution,” said Jason Cole, a spokesman for Democratic Rep. Jim Himes, whose 4th District has some of the worst congestion problems in the state. “Whether it’s to relieve congestion on I-95 or move move people by rail or other ways, this seems like a good out-of-the-box way to fund those needs.”

Projects funded by the infrastructure bank, in particular, would likely have a broad regional focus, fulfilling national transportation priorities rather than targeting small-scale parochial projects.

How Connecticut would fare under such a new system is unclear. Earlier this year, the federal Department of Transportation told Connecticut officials that of the 21 competitive transportation grants the state and localities submitted, seeking more than $580 million, none would be awarded federal funds. It was a stinging disappointment, and Connecticut’s congressional delegation later sought a meeting with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to demand an explanation.

A similar scenario recently played out over the state’s bid for Race to the Top funds, with Connecticut education officials falling short in an effort to win $175 million in federal grant money.

Shubert said there’s no doubt a revamped approach that emphasized competitive transportation grants would be a “significant shift” for the state, and he wasn’t sure how well positioned Connecticut would be in that scenario.

Nursick, the state DOT spokesman, argued that said Connecticut would likely fare very well under such a system. He acknowledged that the earlier round of transportation grants, known as TIGER grants, had been a serious setback.

But he said since then, the state has won $455 million in federal stimulus grants. And, he said, DOT is optimistic about a new round of high-speed passenger rail grants, to be announced in October.

More broadly, he said, Connecticut is a key state in a critical region, meaning it could make a strong case for regional projects that have a national impact. “Throughout New England, we have older infrastructure and more traffic, [but] we are a major economic engine … for the entire country” he said.