Transportation bill helps Connecticut – a little

Washington — With the help of Connecticut lawmakers, the Senate approved a two-year $109 billion transportation bill Wednesday that state officials say may help them move forward with priority projects.

Distributed to the states by formula, the money authorized for Connecticut would increase slightly — by about $10 million — over what the state has received in recent years. Federal funds accounted for more than $1.4 billion of the state’s 2012 transportation budget, but it has received only about half of that money.

The bill was approved 74-22, with Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., voting with the majority.

“This transportation bill is a reminder of what the Senate can accomplish when Democrats and Republicans work together for the American people,” Lieberman said.

The House may not approve a bill by the end of the month, however, requiring another short-term extension.

Senate supporters and unions representing construction workers called it a jobs bill that would create or preserve about 3 million jobs.

“This decisive bipartisan passage will help restore and upgrade our highway, transit and rail systems, and put millions of men and women back to work,” Blumenthal said.

Besides funding the repair and construction of roads, bridges and highways, the bill would provide money to states for bike paths, buses and university transportation projects. But for greater efficiency, the Senate bill requires local governments to compete for that money because it would be distributed through grants.

It would give states greater discretion over how to spend federal transportation money, but under a new set of eligibility requirements. The bill would also increases a commuter tax break that’s now capped at $125 to $240. It allows workers who travel on buses, subways and trains to exempt the money spent on commuting from federal taxes.

“Hundreds of commuters from every corner of the state have expressed to me, through letters, emails, and phone calls in recent months, how useful and important this benefit is to them on a daily basis,” Blumenthal said.

The legislation also contains several measures promoted by the Connecticut Democrat, including funding of a study on rental truck safety, promotion of more zero emission buses like the five running in Hartford, and including language that urges all harbor taxes to be used to fund harbor projects.

But the transportation bill is only a two-year bill, and two years is very little time for transportation planning and construction. The bill would increase spending only by the rate of inflation.

Yet it would end some of the uncertainty fostered by Congress’ inability to approve a long-term transportation bill.

“We’ll take what we can get,” said Kevin Nursick, spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Transportation.

Current authorization for highway spending will expire March 31. That has put pressure on a Congress badly fractured by partisanship to move on a bill.

Without new authorization allowing the release of the remaining transportation funds due to the state, “We would be hard pressed to keep projects going,” Nursick said.

Yet Nursick said he would prefer a “stable, long-term funding source” in a five- or six-year bill that substantially boosted spending.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has described the nation’s roads as “one big pothole.”

Just as the nation’s roads and highways are in bad need of repair, so are the nation’s bridges.

Nursick said the average age of a bridge in Connecticut is 52 years, about 10 years older than the national average. Of about 4,000 state-owned bridges, 319 are structurally deficient and of about 1,300 locally owned bridges, 193 are structurally deficient, Nursick said.

But he stressed that all of Connecticut’s bridges are safe.