Federal money for Connecticut road projects may dry up

The Q Bridge on I-95, one of many projects supported by federal transportation money.

The Q Bridge on I-95, one of many projects supported by federal transportation money.

Washington -- The Malloy administration has quietly dropped plans to add another lane to I-84 from the New York border to Waterbury.

A few weeks ago, the Connecticut Department of Transportation asked the Federal Highway Administration to drop plans to add a lane to I-84 for 32 miles. They have been in the works since 2005.

“The purposes of the proposed improvements were to improve safety and provide increased capacity to meet future traffic demand,” the FHA said in a Federal Register notice.

But “due to the re-prioritization of major transportation projects in Connecticut and funding constraints” the state has scrapped the plan. The proposed I-84 expansion would have cost $3 to $4 billion dollars.

Connecticut and most other states rely on the federal government for the lion’s share of its transportation funding. But how to fund construction of the nation’s roads and bridges, like most other issues in Washington, is subject to a bitter partisan debate. Because Congress can’t agree on how to fund federal road projects, money for the highway trust fund, which is financed by largely by gasoline taxes, will run out in a few weeks.

By July, amid the uncertainty, and right in the middle of summer construction season, thousands of projects and contracts could be put on hold.

Instead of widening more than 30 miles of I-84, the Malloy administration has decided to ease traffic congestion in Waterbury and Danbury in a much more modest, cheaper way.

It proposes to widen a 5-mile section of I-84 near Danbury between exits 3 and 8 at a cost of about $1 billion and add a third lane to about 2.7 miles of I-84 near Waterbury.

“It’s not the end of the road that we’re going to pull the plug on a 30-mile project,” said Connecticut Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Nursick.

Other projects, too

But the state may have to delay work on other project that are priorities.

The state transportation budget is nearly $1.5 billion this year, including nearly $648 million from the federal government and about $300 million in funds carried over from last year.

Those federal funds will dry up if Congress does not find a way to replenish the highway trust fund soon.

Nursick said the impact would not be felt right away, but could be devastating if Congress did not replenish the highway trust fund soon.

He said there’s money in the pipeline to continue projects that are under construction right now, including the $1 billion Q-Bridge and I-95 / I-91 / Route 34 Interchange project. But the startup of new projects like the proposed I-84 road expansions in Danbury and Waterbury “would be difficult.”

Nursick said federal funding for Connecticut – which is determined by formula – has stagnated for years, even as needs have increased. That has put a damper on more ambitious project like the 32-mile widening of I-84.

A total long-term shutoff “would be chaotic and leave transportation infrastructure in the lurch.”

House Republicans proposed shoring up the highway fund for a year by allowing the U.S. Postal Service to end Saturday deliveries and putting the savings into infrastructure projects. That planned was derided by Senate Democrats.

The Senate Finance Committee met in private on Wednesday to try to find another solution. When senators left the meeting, several said a number of proposals had been discussed, including raising taxes or fees on oil wholesalers and imposing new tolls on roadways -- which GOP lawmakers have rejected.  But there did not appear to be consensus.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the chairman of the Finance Committee said the panel would meet again next week to try to find agreement on a proposal House Republicans could accept. But no one expects a quick solution to the problem and the approval of a short-term emergency bill to fund the highway fund is an option.

The problem is that 90 percent of the fund's revenue comes from the 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal tax on gasoline and the 24.4-cents-per-gallon tax on diesel, neither of which has been increased since 1993 and have not kept up with costs. But Republicans refuse to raise those taxes.

Raise the tax?

Last week, at an event at A. Anastasio & Sons Trucking Co. across from the 1-91 bridge in New Haven, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., advocated an increase in the federal gasoline tax.

He said that for every dollar Connecticut pays in federal gas taxes, the state has historically received $1.68 in federal transportation spending, “making these programs a great investment for the state’s economy.”

Murphy said there are 406 bridges in Connecticut alone, including the I-91 bridge, that are deemed “structurally deficient”— meaning that such bridges, while safe, will require repairs or wholesale replacement in the future.

Last week, a bridge malfunction in Norwalk caused hour long train delays for hundreds of commuters.

Murphy proposed a 6-cent-per-gallon increase in the federal gas tax for two years.

“For 20 years, Congress has had its head in the sand, pretending that money is going to fall off trees for infrastructure,” he said. “It’s time to stop pretending.”

But Murphy’s proposal will be a tough sell among Republicans in the House who have taken a pledge not to raise taxes.

 

 

 

About Ana Radelat

Ana is a longtime Washington correspondent who has won numerous awards, including from The Associated Press and Gannett, has written for more than a dozen newspapers, including USAToday; The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger; the Shreveport (La.) Times; and the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser. She’s also been a regular contributor to other publications, including the Miami Herald and Advertising Age. Some of the stories Ana has broken focused on the strategies of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, former Sen. Trent Lott’s fall from power and questionable Hurricane Katrina contracts. A regular contributor to WNPR, Connecticut Public Radio, a partner of The Mirror, Ana is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism. E-mail her at aradelat@ctmirror.org.

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