Advocates to candidates: Find money for Connecticut’s transportation network

Former Transportation Strategy Board member Karen Burnaska and other advocates challenge gubernatorial candidates to focus on state's transportation needs.

CtMIrror file photo

Former Transportation Strategy Board member Karen Burnaska and other advocates challenge gubernatorial candidates to focus on state’s transportation needs.

Transportation advocates challenged Connecticut gubernatorial candidates to support increased funding to overhaul the state’s aging infrastructure – even if it likely means tax increases or tolls.

The coalition of nearly three dozen — including construction trades and businesses, seven chambers of commerce, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and numerous regional planning agencies – also challenged the candidates to participate this fall in a debate on transportation issues.

“Connecticut’s next governor has two choices: provide safe and efficient transportation, or allow our infrastructure to crumble,” Don Shubert, president of the Connecticut Construction Industries Association, said during a late morning press conference at Union Station in Hartford. “Maintaining the aging system of roads, bridges and rail lines in a state of good repair is critical for the safety and reliability of the system that the vast majority of the traveling public are using every day.”

A number of signs point to a potential transportation crisis in Connecticut’s near future, advocates said:

  • The former state Transportation Strategy Board warned four years ago there is no apparent revenue to fund between $15 billion and $20 billion in needed long-term highway, bridge and rail repair and enhancements.
  • Both Gov. Dannel P. Malloy – a Democrat who took office in 2011 – and his Republican predecessor M. Jodi Rell – who served from mid-2004 through 2010 – worked with Democrat-controlled legislatures to raid transportation funds to close or avoid budget deficits.
  • Connecticut has nearly $3 billion in financing for transportation projects approved by the state Bond Commission – that nonetheless hasn’t been borrowed yet and spent on actual projects. That backlog is nearly double the pending amount from four years ago.
  • And despite a record-setting series of state gasoline tax hikes imposed in 2005-2007 and in 2013, Department of Transportation staffing is down about 8 percent since the increases began.

Addressing this crisis “is important for the economy, for the environment and for the quality of life for all residents,” said former Monroe First Selectwoman Karen Burnaska, who served on the state transportation strategy board.

Burnaska added she believes the new group, is the largest, “broadest-based” transportation advocacy coalition in Connecticut history.

“People get this,” added Roger Reynolds of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment. “People understand we need to invest in our crumbling infrastructure.”

In a bulletin titled “Moving Transportation Forward in Connecticut,” the coalition challenged the gubernatorial field not only to preserve transportation funding in the future, but to ensure state government has enough to expedite projects, invest in crucial new ones and plan for shrinking federal aid.

When asked if that likely means having to raise taxes, impose tolls or otherwise raise new state revenue, Shubert said “Yes.”

“There’s too many bridges, there’s too many rail lines, there’s too many roads at stake,” he said. “We need to have a broader conversation about tolls, and – I hate to say it – sales and other taxes.”

Lyle Wray of the Capitol Region Council of Governments warned candidates that simply pledging to lobby Congress for more federal aid also isn’t an acceptable solution.

“In Washington, nothing is certain,” he said.

Malloy, the Democratic nominee, has said repeatedly though, that there won’t be tax hikes in the next state budget, even though nonpartisan analysts are projecting a $1.4 billion shortfall, about 7 percent, one year from now.

Mark Bergmann, spokesman for the governor’s campaign, noted that the administration already has made key investments in rail, road, bridge and transit projects. The state this week unveiled the design for the new buses that will run on CT Fast-track, commonly known as the New Britain-to-Hartford Busway, the largest transit initiative of the Malloy administration.

“Governor Malloy is absolutely committed to continuing those investments and making them a priority,” Bergmann said.

He added that while the governor has not proposed tolls, he is willing to discuss them provided an amendment to the state Constitution is developed to ensure all funds raised are dedicated to transportation.

Greenwich businessman Tom Foley, the Republican nominee, has ruled out tax hikes and says he will keep overall state spending flat.

“I would welcome the opportunity to debate Connecticut’s transportation issues which are a high priority because they directly affect our ability to create jobs and impact our commuters and families on a daily basis,” Foley wrote in a statement Tuesday.

Foley did not respond when questioned whether he would support tax increases to pay ensure proper transportation funding next year. He added, though, that “I will stop the reckless and irresponsible practice of raiding the Special Transportation Fund and make sure that we invest in our roads and bridges at a level required to return them to them to their condition before Malloy took office.”

Both Foley and Malloy also have said they believe the state will be able to offer modest tax cuts in the next budget.

But the two candidates trying to petition onto the ballot, former state Rep. Jonathan Pelto of Mansfield and former West Hartford Town Councilor Joe Visconti, took a different point of view.

Both welcomed the idea of a transportation debate Tuesday.

Pelto, who insists the state budget is facing a crisis, repeated his assertion that a significant income tax hike on the wealthy, complemented by the closing of sales tax loopholes for businesses, could stabilize state finances and provide sufficient resources to invest in new transportation projects.

A study last summer by the University of Connecticut estimated that every $1 billion in backlogged state financing for capital projects delays the creation of up to 10,000 new construction and construction-related jobs.

“The good news about this campaign is that the truth is finally being told in a number of key areas, including transportation,” said Pelto, who has accused both Malloy and Foley of understating the projected budget deficit.

Visconti has said tax hikes or tolls should be a last resort, but added Tuesday that they could not be ruled out if necessary to jump-start vital infrastructure investments.

The former West Hartford official said he would consider them if complemented by real efforts to curb state spending elsewhere, and to guarantee that all new revenues would be dedicated solely for transportation purposes.

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