State aid for road repairs can’t keep up with the potholes

As one of the worst winters in recent history finally retreats, state government will give municipalities $30 million to fix potholes and otherwise repair local roads and bridges– the same funding it provided 25 years ago.

And while state officials grapple with a budget deficit of historic proportions, municipal leaders are concerned about the state’s shrinking role in local road maintenance.

“The truth is we don’t have separate state and local transportation networks,” James Finley, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities said Friday. “They are all inter-connected, and there are lot more local roads and bridges than state roads and bridges.

Connecticut municipalities maintain more than 17,100 miles of road, more than four times that overseen by the Department of Transportation.

And though state aid always has been a supplemental revenue source for local road repairs, it long has been a vital one, said former Monroe First Selectwoman Karen Burnaska, a member of the state’s Transportation Strategy Board.

The TSB recommended that the governor and legislature “substantially increase” Town Aid Road grants in its latest report, issued in January.

“We relied on the TAR grant to do the basic maintenance that was needed,” Burnaska said, adding that when the grant is cut, maintenance often is deferred. “The local roads deteriorate until they need major repairs which cost significantly more money.”

And for the state’s urban centers, which bear a heavy brunt of traffic but lack the wealth of Connecticut’s suburbs, the effective erosion of state transportation aid has been particularly challenging, according to Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra.

“We have hundreds of thousands of cars going through” the city, Segarra said. “We know our roads are taking a beating.”

The mayor said last week that city public works crews already have repaired more than 2,500 potholes, but anticipate having to fill more than 12,000 more given the structural damage done by the severe winter.

The legislature enacted a specific grant formula to help municipalities fix their roads in 1967, allocating $13 million to communities based on the number of miles needing repair and the local population.

That allocation rose to $30 million for the first time in 1986-87, remaining at that level for another six years.

From there it went on a fiscal roller-coaster ride, falling to $20 million in the mid-1990s, peaking at $35 million for three years in the early 2000s, dropping to $12.5 million on the heels of a recession in 2003, then gradually climbing back to $30 million in 2007, where it has remained ever since.

But while the grant level has fluctuated upward and downward since 1986, the cost of road maintenance has moved in just one direction since then–and sometimes very quickly.

According to the state DOT, the costs of diesel fuel and of bituminous liquid asphalt – two crucial materials for road projects–skyrocketed during the years leading up to the last recession. Between 2004 and 2008, the prices for these two items jumped 168 percent and 177 percent, respectively.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ consumer price index inflation calculator, the legislature and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy would need to allocate $60.3 million for Town Aid Road grants next fiscal year to give towns the same purchasing power they had with $30 million in 1986.

And it would take $85.7 million to match the fiscal clout of the $13 million authorized in 1967.

Malloy recommended maintaining the $30 million grant level in the $19.74 billion budget he proposed last month for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The new governor inherited a built-in deficit for the coming year that ranges between $3.2 billion and $3.67 billion, a gap equal to nearly one-fifth of current spending.

Given the scope of that problem, municipal leaders interviewed for this story didn’t blame Malloy for not recommending an expansion of the grant.

Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, co-chairman of the legislature’s Transportation Committee, said he doesn’t believe legislators or Malloy want state government to abandon its role in supporting local road maintenance.

“I think we do talk about it quite a bit and the issue has always come down to revenue: How are we going to pay for it?” Guerrera said.

Guerrera, n advocate of placing electronic tolls on highway, said that if lawmakers take this step–and dedicate all revenues solely for transportation projects–Connecticut could do a better job upgrading both its state highways and its local roads.

Malloy’s budget director, Office of Policy and Management Secretary Benjamin Barnes, said that while the administration didn’t recommend additional funds for road grants, it did propose $85 million in expanded taxing authority and other new revenue sources for cities and towns.

Communities “are going to be able to dedicate whatever they see fit of that money for road repairs,” he said.