Cities and towns press for release of road repair funds

Melissa Bailey / New Haven Independent file photo

Spring pothole repair in New Haven.

Advocates for cities and towns pressed Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration to release nearly $30 million in road repair grants owed to municipalities before June 30.

While the administration has not refused to release the Town Aid Roads (TAR) grant payments, it has warned that funding could be stalled until legislators stabilize a state transportation program headed for insolvency by next fiscal year.

“Local governments have long depended on TAR grants, so when TAR is cut, local road projects are shelved – meaning jobs are lost and costs of repairs will be even higher when finally undertaken,” the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM) wrote in a statement. “Shortchanging TAR is pennywise and pound-foolish.”

“Town Aid Road grants are critical to Connecticut’s small towns in maintaining the transportation infrastructure needed to support local economies,” Elizabeth Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, said. “Towns have to go out to bid and enter into contracts now to begin to move forward with projects in the spring. The uncertainty regarding whether Town Aid Road grants will be released is forcing towns to defer needed road maintenance projects, which will lead to higher repair costs down the line.”

The state budgeted $60 million in TAR grants for the full fiscal year. The state normally delivers half to communities in July and the remainder in January. Connecticut borrows the funds, financing the grant payments through the sale of bonds on Wall Street.

But several factors have interfered with the normal flow of road repair funds to cities and towns.

The legislature did not adopt a new budget for this fiscal year until late October. The State Bond Commission approved bonding for the first $30 million installment at its Nov. 29 meeting, and the governor’s budget office — which controls the bond commission agenda — released the funds to communities shortly thereafter.

The administration has scheduled another bond commission meeting for Friday, but the second $30 million installment is not on the agenda.

Chris McClure, spokesman for the governor’s budget office, said earlier this week only that the bond commission will have more opportunities to meet before the fiscal year ends on June 30.

But Malloy already has warned that the instability of the Special Transportation Fund, which would cover — among other things — the debt payments on the TAR bonds, needs to be addressed.

Malloy warned Wall Street investors, the business community and the legislature earlier this winter that Connecticut’s transportation program is on the brink of a crisis.

Absent more funding, the state would need to scrap some rail services, drive up fares, suspend 40 percent of planned capital projects, including major highway rebuilds like the Hartford viaduct, to remain solvent over the next five years, the administration says.

The governor asked legislators this month to add seven cents to Connecticut’s 25-cents-per-gallon retail gasoline tax, and to order electronic tolling on highways. The latter, if approved, probably would not yield major revenue until the 2021-22 fiscal year, the administration says.

“We agree with CCM that repairing and maintaining transportation infrastructure is vitally important to Connecticut and those rising costs present difficulties when revenues are strained — as this is a case the Malloy administration has been making for years,” McClure said Thursday.

But it’s hard to justify financing more road repair grants for towns, he said, “when we just canceled or delayed $4.3 billion worth of (transportation) projects.”

McClure added that “We are optimistic that we will be able to act on the additional TAR funding later this spring once the legislature has taken needed steps to strengthen the Special Transportation Fund to provide a sustainable and predictable path forward for Connecticut’s transportation infrastructure.”

Though Democrats have been divided on the governor’s proposals for tolls and a fuel tax hike, GOP lawmakers have been almost unanimous in their opposition to both.

The Senate is split evenly 18-18 along partisan lines. Democrats hold a narrow 78-71 edge in the House.