Transportation advocates and officials across Connecticut gathered in the State Capitol on Monday to face a sobering fact: In an age of soaring deficits on both the state and national levels, the funds available for transit improvements are shrinking fast.

Funding on the federal level remains uncertain not only because of the slow negotiations to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff,” but also because a highway trust fund is nearly broke. Meanwhile, Connecticut’s own deficit seems to rise daily — it is now estimated at around $400 million for this fiscal year — prompting budget cuts to a variety of different state agencies.

“In two years, our federal [funding situation] could be a disaster,” said Jim Redeker, commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Transportation. “There’s a real sense that we have to look very quickly at what the options are.”

Like many other states, Connecticut is left with major transportation projects that have little or no source of funding at the moment — including a badly needed overhaul of the Aetna Viaduct, a three-quarter-mile elevated stretch of Interstate 84 over Hartford, and the modernization of Metro-North’s New Haven rail line, which carries upwards of 38 million passengers between Connecticut and Manhattan each year.

“These are multi-billion-dollar projects … and the state does not have the funds to do them,” said Emil Frankel, a former commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Transportation who is now with the Bipartisan Policy Center. “We have to look at other revenue sources.”

Those sources must include tolls, he said, and was echoed by many others at the forum — touching what had long been considered a “third rail” in Connecticut politics. Since a fiery crash at a toll barricade in 1983 killed seven people, Connecticut has eliminated all of its tolls and relies mostly on gasoline taxes and federal funding for transportation.

“We, as citizens, have to take on more responsibility for funding,” said Oz Griebel of the MetroHartford Alliance, who ran for Governor as a Republican in 2010 and suggested highway tolls for the state at the time. He speculated that Gov. Dannel Malloy, who was criticized by many for embracing the controversial $570 million Hartford-to-New-Britain busway dubbed CT Fastrak, might now be willing to touch the third rail.

Redeker said the state has been studying the possibility of adding fees for highway drivers based on time of day, type of vehicle, and lanes. “Tolls need to be looked at, like everything else,” he said. The Los Angeles-area, that for years boasted of its toll-free highwatys, recently began charging tolls on an 11-mile stretch of its 110 Freeway.

Still, tolls — or higher gasoline taxes, which have also been floated as a possibility on the national level — wouldn’t solve the problem. A large chunk of gas tax money that was technically meant for transportation in the state has for many years gone to other uses. Last year, Malloy put $40 million back into what’s called the “Special Transportation Fund,” but this fiscal year he took out $70 million. He offset the difference partly by fare increases on Metro-North that will take place on January 1, 2013.

If tolls were added, said many at the forum, they would have to be dedicated only to the Special Transportation Fund.

As Frankel put it, “People who use the system should pay for the system, and they should know that the money is being reinvested in the transportation system.”

Kim Fawcett, who represents Fairfield and Westport in the Connecticut General Assembly, said she’s been fighting for years to get her constituents to warm to the idea of tolls on I-95 or other highways in the state.

“How do I sell it?” she asked panelists at the forum on Monday. “We need a grand vision.”

Perhaps, she suggested after the forum, she could “sell” her voters on tolls if they came with this promise: “You’re going to get a commute of 30 minutes to New York City instead of the hour and 15 minutes that it currently takes on the train.”

At the moment, though, the state doesn’t have any long-term plan that would allow her to promote such a vision. And there’s no guarantee that Connecticut won’t continue to raid its Special Transportation Fund, making the situation even worse.

In his opening remarks at the “Transit for Connecticut Forum,” Malloy referred to that issue, saying pointedly, “Putting our fiscal house in order after 20 years of ignoring it is a very important issue…these days will be behind us.”

He also pointed out that Connecticut does have a few major transportation projects already underway, including CT Fastrak and the new high-speed rail line that runs from New Haven through Hartford up to Springfield. (Those projects are financed largely through one-time federal grants).

Redeker said the Special Transportation Fund should not be affected by changes to the state’s General Fund — but in reality, there are no guarantees.

“At this point I’m really not aware of what the proposals are or what the debates are going to be, but it’s a tough problem,” he said.  “And we’ll work together on it.”

Redeker’s agency budget totals about $1.2 billion, including both capital and operating expenses.

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