Lots of ideas, but where’s the $$$?

A breakdown of the $1.2 billion Special Transportation Fund — which is sometimes used for things other than transportation.

Connecticut’s lawmakers have a lot of ideas on how to improve transportation in the state. And I mean a LOT of ideas.

They were talked about for nearly six hours at a meeting and public hearing of the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee yesterday. Some of the highlights of the legislative proposals discussed include: studying ways to increase the use of mass transit, adding more parking to Metro-North train stations, electrifying the Danbury Branch Line of the New Haven Line (can you believe it’s still diesel???), cracking down on distracted driving, and putting a “lock-box” on the Special Transportation Fund.

They sound nice. But given that Connecticut is faced with a huge budget hole and other looming priorities like guns and mental health, they’re unlikely to be a focus of this legislative session. And we don’t have the money to pay for pretty much any of them. (For the record, Governor Dannel P. Malloy did announce a proposal to fund the nearly-bankrupt “Local Bridge Program” with a $15 million infusion. And we do have work underway on the busway and the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield high-speed rail line. But a lot more could be done for Metro-North’s New Haven Line besides those shiny new rail cars.)

“It’s all really about money,” said Jim Cameron, chairman of Connecticut’s commuter rail council.  “There are dozens and dozens of proposed bills, but the problem is, there’s not enough money to finance almost any of them.”

Bummer. Well, OK, so if we can’t actually add a lot more money for transportation infrastructure, can we at least hold on to the money we have? After all, the administration took more than $70 million out of the fund to plug holes in the state’s budget last year, even raising train fares for that purpose. There were a few bills put in the mix this year designed to prevent that from happening again — basically, making the fund a “lock box” under the law, perhaps even through a state Constitutional amendment. Rep. Kim Fawcett of Fairfield suggested something like this. Republican Gail Lavielle of Wilton proposed a law making sure that public transportation fares could only go into that locked box.

Steve Higashide of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign went even further: “I’d like to suggest, in addition to locking the lock box, the legislators consider putting an alarm on it,” he said. As in, if the legislature does take money out of the fund, there’d have to be a public announcement to that effect so everyone’s aware of it.

Certainly an attractive proposal, especially for Fairfield County. Feasible in these budget times? Unclear.

Mirror staff writer Michael Gambina contributed to this report.