Towns plead for more aid to fix deteriorating roads and bridges

Recent increases in state funding for municipal road and bridge repair haven’t been enough to reverse decades of shrinking assistance, or to prevent the steady deterioration of local infrastructure, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities reported Thursday.

In its latest state campaign season position paper, the chief lobby group for Connecticut’s 169 cities and towns, said skyrocketing maintenance costs threaten local taxpayers across the state.

“The passage of time and the slow recovery from an historic recession have created a perfect storm for the deterioration of Connecticut’s local roads and bridges,” said CCM President Matthew Galligan, South Windsor’s town manager. “While the state has made strides to increase investments to improve and maintain the state and local transportation network, the additional funding has not kept pace with the declining state of our transportation infrastructure.”

The CCM report cites an American Society of Civil Engineers estimate that about 73 percent of Connecticut’s roads are in poor or mediocre condition.

And according to the Federal Highway Administration, about 11 percent of Connecticut’s bridges have at least one structural deficiency, while 24 percent are structurally obsolete.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the legislature doubled the Town Aid Roads grant – the chief source of state help for local transportation improvements – from $30 million to $60 million last fiscal year, and maintained that funding level in the current budget.

But the program hasn’t kept pace with inflation.

In 1967 the legislature enacted a specific grant formula to help municipalities fix their roads, allocating $13 million to communities based on the number of miles needing repair and the local population.

That allocation rose to $30 million for the first time in 1986-87, remaining at that level for another six years.

From there it went up and down, falling to $20 million in the mid-1990s, peaking at $35 million for three years in the early 2000s, dropping to $12.5 million on the heels of a recession in 2003, then gradually climbing back to $30 million in 2007, where it has remained ever since.

But this year’s $60 million grant has the same purchasing power the program had in 1988, when it provided towns with $30 million, using the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ consumer price index inflation calculator.

It would require $92.6 million this year to match the inflation-adjusted purchasing power of the original $13 million grant in 1967.

The Local Capital Improvement Program, a second state grant that helps communities pay for infrastructure improvements, still provides the same $30 million per year it offered when the program began in 1987.

Meanwhile, the cost of transportation maintenance has generally moved upward –and sometimes very quickly.

The CCM study cites a 2011 article from The Mirror, which reported that, according to the state DOT, the costs of diesel fuel and of bituminous liquid asphalt – two crucial materials for road projects–skyrocketed during the years leading up to the last recession. Between 2004 and 2008, the prices for these two items jumped 168 percent and 177 percent, respectively.

Further complicating matters, the state had funded the Town Aid Roads program chiefly in its operating budget until 2009, when it began financing the grant with borrowing.

And as the state budget has continued to struggle with deficit projections since then, the road-aid grant has remained on the credit card. That means the state has been paying interest on these municipal grants since then – a practice some Connecticut officials insist must stop.

Connecticut communities are responsible for maintaining 17,287 miles of roads, more than four times the 4,103 state highway miles assigned to the Department of Transportation.

There also are more than 3,400 bridges and culverts on municipally maintained roads, also more than four times the number of state bridges, although the latter typically are larger than local structures.

Besides urging increased funding for local infrastructure improvements, the CCM report argues that state and local maintenance should be planned in a more coordinated fashion.

“The reality in Connecticut is there are no separate state and local transportation networks,” Galligan said. “… Investment in state roads should be done in concert with sufficient investment in local roads and bridges.”

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