Pork barrel projects stall rail cars

Connecticut will have to wait for Gov.-elect Dan Malloy’s administration to take office next month before it can buy the final 38 new rail commuter cars that will complete a major restoration project launched five years ago.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell confirmed Tuesday that last week’s State Bond Commission failed to approve $81.5 million in borrowing to purchase those cars, and that there weren’t six affirmative votes on the 10-member panel to release those funds at this time.

A procedural snafu blocked the funding for the rail cars and a host of small community-based projects – dubbed pork-barrel spending by critics – during last Friday’s commission meeting. Rell released an agenda Tuesday for another meeting on Dec. 22, and while the delayed small projects were back on the agenda, the rail cars were not.

“It was clear that the rail car funding would not get the requisite six ‘yes’ votes from the panel, and Governor Rell is disappointed about that,” Rell spokesman Adam Liegeot said Tuesday.

The administration has warned delaying the final purchase the already-ordered 38 cars by even one month could cost Connecticut an extra $1 million.

State government ordered has ordered 342 self-propelled rail cars from Kawasaki for use on the Metro-North and Shore Line East commuter lines to replace an aging fleet of passenger cars. Connecticut’s share of the purchase costs is $597.3 million, and Rell asked the bond commission last week to release funds for the final 38 cars.

But that agenda also included over $20 million in borrowing for more than three dozen community-based projects, primarily in legislative districts controlled by the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate – groups Rell had to bargain with to gain approval for several judicial appointments over the past year.

Both Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and state Comptroller Nancy Wyman refused to attend last week’s commission meeting and indicated Tuesday they also would stay away on Dec. 22.

“Nothing has changed since the last bond commission meeting,” Blumenthal said. “The new administration – merely weeks away from assuming office – deserves a say on such significant expenditures in light of the state’s massive deficit. I feel a responsibility to defer action on these substantial proposals so close to the transfer of authority.”

Wyman, who will be sworn in as lieutenant governor next month, said last week that “there’s only one governor at a time.” And though she didn’t comment further, Wyman has complained frequently about the state’s high debt and heavy use of borrowing for legislators’ pet projects.

Rep. Vincent J. Candelora of R-North Branford has opposed all bonding proposals in recent months to protest the overall debt.

Two Democrats on the commission, Rep. Cameron Staples of New Haven and Sen. Eileen Daily of Westbrook, joined him in voting against borrowing for the rail cars.

Sen. Andrew Roraback, R-Goshen, joined in voting against the pork-barrel bonding, most of which also stalled at the last meeting.

But while legislators, Rell, Malloy and other constitutional officers have been almost universal in their support of the rail car purchases, borrowing for pet projects has been sparking controversy across party lines.

Connecticut, which owes $7,886 for every man, woman and child in the state, ranks fourth in overall per capita debt, and first in per capita debt that is being paid off with state tax dollars.

The Dec. 22 bond commission agenda includes the pet projects that failed to get six votes at the last meeting. Rell’s office did not comment on whether it believes those items are more likely to be approved next week.