Putting climate change in the transportation budget

Last week, the Malloy administration's budget proposal came under fire from transportation advocates for proposing to raise bus fares, cut portions of the rail budget, put more expenses on the state's credit card and raid $75 million from the Special Transportation Fund to plug the state's budget hole.

That was before the blizzard.

Now, as Connecticut digs out from a historic snowstorm, questions about severe storms -- and the possibility of more frequent and ones -- dominated a transportation committee hearing in Hartford this week, where legislators had a chance to grill Transportation Commissioner Jim Redeker on the transportation budget.

"Where in this budget do I see preparation for the next 100-year storm that may be next week or the following week," asked Democratic Rep. Toni Walker of New Haven, "and what are we doing to prepare ourselves in your budget?"

Redeker's answer: Nowhere, and not much.

"There is nothing specifically to deal with the 100-year storms," he said. " ... This budget does not include anything extraordinary for any new climate-change types of initiatives and what it might mean to our maintenance," he said.

The DOT' makes its budgets for storm preparation and cleanup based on weather events of the past five years. So far, that kind of projection has been a spotty measure at best. Last year, the entire budget -- developed with the expectation of about a dozen storms -- was gobbled up by just two, although Redeker noted that most of those costs were reimbursed by the federal government.

Legislators were wary that long-term planning seemed absent from the budget.

"My concern is that we live very close to the line, and it seems like ... these 100-year occurrences are happening way too fast for us," Walker said.

There may also be a case for the state to buy snow removal equipment like snowblowers and payloaders -- all of which it had to contract out for during the recent blizzard. But those ideas were all characterized as future discussions, rather than possible line-items in a current or future budget.

Cost estimates for Winter Storm Nemo aren't available yet. When asked by several legislators how it would impact the DOT's budget, Redeker could only say that "pre-Nemo, "we were right on target."

" ... We had five storms left in the typical year budget. Is this storm worth one, two, or six? I don't know yet. Because we're still spending money."

Redeker said there may be cause to look differently at how the budget for storms is developed in the future, but that for now, the state can rely on the federal government to meet its needs during natural disasters.

The congressional tussle over emergency funding for Superstorm Sandy, though, is an example of how that trust may become more fragile. While the administration of Gov. Dannel Malloy asked the White House for $3.2 billion in additional Sandy aid to ramp up Connecticut infrastructure in anticipation of future storm, a very small portion of that -- about $200 million -- is expected to actually be awarded to the state.

"It's a very political process," said Eric Lindquist, director of the Boise State University Public Policy Center, who has done research on how state agencies are planning for climate change. "There's a lot of uncertainty, of course, in climate change research."

"...Making that connection [between Nemo and] climate change in tenuous," he added. "But I think the public is coming around to this more and more."

Lindquist said it's not likely that state transportation agencies will really start to move on planning for the effects of climate change until the federal government prompts them.

"A lot of [agencies we interviewed] said there was a reason that they weren't doing it yet, because they didn't have any mandate or direction from the feds" who provide most of their transportation money, Lindquist said.

And of course, increasing the budget for storm preparation and response means limiting something else: "OK, we can set aside money for snow removal or road prep, but that means we're not going to be able to fill potholes in the summer."

The cost of Nemo is likely to exceed the DOT's budget once again, but with President Obama approving an emergency situation in Connecticut, federal funds will kick in to help. Still, the hardest-hit towns, especially in New Haven County, and the state as a whole will most likely feel the pinch.

Republican state Rep. Arthur O'Neill of Southbury suggested that DOT consult with meteorologists and environmental experts about what to expect in the future.

"We're going to be on this kind of roller-coaster ride as opposed to what we're traditionally used to seeing," he said.

 

 

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