Malloy revives planning for completion of Route 11

It was given up for dead during the administration of Lowell P. Weicker Jr. in the early 1990s and again in 2009 under M. Jodi Rell, but Gov. Dannel P. Malloy today breathed new life into the idea of completing Route 11.

With the blessing of the Federal Highway Administration, Malloy revived planning for an unfinished 8-mile route that has been an issue in eastern Connecticut since construction began on the initial 7-mile stretch in 1966.

Malloy said the planning will include an updated environmental impact statement and a study of the feasibility of financing construction, at least in part, with tolls, since federal highway dollars are expected to grow even tighter.

“We’ll be examining all our options,” Malloy said.

No one should plan on a groundbreaking soon: The studies outlined today will take about 2½ years. And if the past is prologue, betting on a happy ending should carry long, long odds.

Malloy is the eighth governor to wrestle with a project begun in the 1960s, suspended in the 1970s, reworked in the 1980s, and abandoned in the 1990s, only to experience periodic revivals like an oldies band.

U.S. Rep. Joseph Courtney, D-2nd District, and Malloy said the impetus for the highway remains the same: After Route 11 ends in Salem, the trip from Hartford to New London follows a winding and often dangerous path along Route 85.

President Obama took the route last week from Bradley International Airport to the Coast Guard Academy after bad weather grounded his usual ride, the Marine One helicopter.

“I was to dispel any rumors that the fact the president had to drive from Bradley to New London and take the zigzag route, which we all deal with every day, has nothing to do with the timing of this announcement,” Courtney joked.

Emil Frankel, a transportation commissioner for Weicker and more than 15 years later an interim appointee of Rell’s, pronounced the project dead under Weicker. When he returned under Rell, he joked he would have to dispatch it again.

Frankel remains a doubter in his new post as the director of transportation policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank.

“You can’t do everything,” Frankel said.  “If that project is built, if $1 billion is spent on that, then there are a couple of bridges on I-95… that can’t be rebuilt.”

And money remains a key stumbling block.

He said Malloy and others need to evaluate Route 11’s benefits and costs in the context of all the other needs in the state.

“Last time I checked, Route 11 would carry 15,000 to 20,000 vehicles a day,” Frankel said. “The Moses Wheeler bridge on 1-95 carries about 150,000 to 175,000 vehicles a day.”

Replacing the bridge and completing Route 11 would each cost about $1 billion, with much of the cost of the Route 11 project going for interchanges at I-95 or I-395.

“If you can only do one thing, which do you think is more important?” Frankel asked. “Those are the choices the state faces in a time of constricted constrained resources.”

On the issue of resources, Frankel also raised broader questions about Malloy’s hopes of fixing Connecticut’s transportation woes by, at least in part, getting more federal money.

“The cupboard is bare,” he said.

Malloy is more optimistic, but the governor’s study of tolls is an acknowledgment that federal funds could be unavailable.

Connecticut’s transportation capital program is already too heavily reliant on federal funds, and with Congress emphasizing austerity, Washington’s contribution to the state isn’t going to grow, Frankel said.

“It’s likelier that Connecticut’s slice of that pie is going to be smaller,” Frankel said. The formulas used to divvy up federal transportation dollars used to be written in large part by lawmakers from the Northeast, but that’s not true now.

“I think Connecticut’s power and ability to influence its slice of the pie has dwindled in a situation in which the pie is not going to grow. And then you also have the prohibition on earmarks… so that also is going to be a factor.”