Gov. Ned Lamont, flanked by budget chief Melissa McCaw and Transportation Commissioner Joseph Giulietti. mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

Gov. Ned Lamont’s struggle to sell Connecticut on tolls may hinge on one big question. (Hint: It isn’t, ‘Why did he drop his campaign pledge to only toll trucks?’)

Namely, which planned highway, bridge or rail projects can’t begin over the next four years under the governor’s budget proposal? It’s a question that transportation officials have already asked – and shared their concerns about with the governor’s office.

But why would any projects fall into limbo between now and the time major toll receipts start arriving in 2023?

First of all, the DOT planned to launch new projects aggressively in the early 2020s, after the marathon 2017 budget debate forced it to limit last year’s building program.

Secondly, Lamont wants to use big sales tax receipts pledged for transportation — about $850 million over the next four years — to solve shortfalls in other parts of the budget.

The CT Mirror asked DOT Commissioner Joseph Giulietti during a press conference with Lamont last week whether the governor’s budget would curtail significant numbers of new projects due to be launched over the next few years.

“We’ve looked at it,” Giulietti said. “I’m not at that point where I’m willing to go and say that is the case right now. We’re going through an evaluation on that.”

But what Giulietti didn’t say is that the DOT has already identified concerns, according to a February departmental analysis of the governor’s proposals obtained by the CT Mirror.

The governor’s plan “would have significant impacts on our capital program, severely constricting the number of new projects that advance in the current, and future years,” the DOT wrote.

Projects on the cutting block

Projects “most at risk” over the next four years include any initiatives funded exclusively with state dollars. These include the “Fix-it-First” roadway and bridge programs launched under Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in response to stagnant federal transportation aid that has been falling in recent years. (Federal funds that once covered more than 70 percent of Connecticut’s transportation capital program now represent closer to one-third.)

The DOT also developed a list of 14 projects this month that have been advertised, but for which no contracts have yet been awarded. These “will be reviewed to determine whether they need to be delayed, pending a decision regarding a bonding cap,” the department wrote.

Included on that list are a planned upgrade to the Charter Oak Bridge interchange with northbound Interstate 91, platform improvements and a pedestrian bridge for the Clinton railroad station, numerous bridge rehabilitations, and a pavement preservation project.

The department also listed more than 80 other new projects which are scheduled to be advertised between February and December of this year.

New construction commitments planned over that period include tunnel improvements on Route 15 in Woodbridge, enhancements to Interstate 95 in Greenwich, and replacing the Rochambeau Bridge superstructure on Interstate 84 in Newtown.

“We are still working through all of these projects together with OPM (Office of Policy and Management) and nothing is  set in stone,” Giulietti said Wednesday morning. “But it does point to another critical example of why there needs to be a dedicated, consistent revenue stream — because while we don’t have one our infrastructure suffers and jobs are lost.”

No extra borrowing to bolster transportation 

Lamont’s budget would affect transportation — in the short-term — very significantly.

First off, the governor would take away a big transportation funding option on which the DOT had been counting.

The state borrowed $800 million to support transportation last fiscal year and anticipates another $750 million this year — borrowing which, in turn, leverages more than $700 million dollars in matching federal grants.

But for the last two years, legislators also have said the transportation program — if necessary — could tap another $250 million annually from a different borrowing program, one used chiefly for school and other education projects.

Lamont’s budget would keep regular transportation borrowing flat, at around the $800 million mark for each of the next two years. But his budget also would remove the option to borrow an extra $250 million, an option the DOT was counting on.

Projects underway are safe – but what about the rest?

The Lamont administration said this week all projects already underway will be fine. As for those that the DOT wants to start over the next four years, well, they will be evaluated.

The DOT referred any questions this week about the capital program to the governor’s office.

If the administration decides more borrowing needs to be approved to launch new projects, it will be —  provided the Special Transportation Fund has enough resources to cover the added debt payments, according to Lamont spokeswoman Maribel La Luz.

But the problem with that plan is Lamont also wants to tap resources earmarked for the STF to close a deficit in the rest of the budget.

Current law calls for the STF to gain an extra $850 million from the sales tax over the next four years combined. Lamont wants to keep these dollars in the General Fund to help avert major projected deficits. The administration says state finances, unless adjusted, will run $3.7 billion in the red over the next two years.

Lamont recommended transferring $162 million from the sales tax. The transportion fund also would keep an extra $77 million over the next four years if unions grant the concessions the governor requested.

In other words, the transportation fund would grow much more slowly under Lamont’s proposal than scheduled under current law — at least until 2023, when more than $740 million per year from tolls arrives.

DOT has big construction plans for the next four years

State transportation officials clearly had a different vision for the next four years.

The DOT, like many state agencies, had to water down its spending plans in 2017 when legislators battled for nine months before adopting a new state budget. Plans for $2 billion in capital spending shrank to $1.7 billion. These totals involve funds set aside from past state borrowing as well as accumulated federal grants.

This year the department had hoped to catch up. According to its latest long-range capital plan, released in mid-November, capital spending ideally should reach $2.6 billion before this fiscal year ends in June.

But because Connecticut has not invested sufficiently in transportation for decades, the goal is to keep capital spending above $2 billion for years to come. The DOT’s long-range plan calls for an average of $2.36 billion over the next four years.

The Lamont administration counters that any capital spending goals are unrealistic if they rely on an overall state budget system that is out of balance.

Still, if neither state borrowing nor federal aid is growing significantly, it will be hard to hit those targets. And it’s not just the department that has concerns.

Construction companies and trade unions also are worried Lamont’s budget could represent a temporary step back.

“I think scaling back right now would be catastrophic,” Donald Shubert, president of the Connecticut Construction Industry Association, said earlier this month. Shubert also praised Lamont for proposing tolls on all vehicles.

David Roche, president of the Connecticut State Building Trades Council, also said the state can’t afford to backtrack — even for a few years — on maintaining an aging, overcrowded transportation network.

“I really don’t believe we can have less money going into transportation,” even for a few years, Roche said.

{Updated at 8:30 a.m., Wednesday with additional comments from Giulietti.}

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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17 Comments

  1. The building trades council is always quoted in these articles. Why? They’re commentary is never illusionary – it’s self serving. They just want more union jobs. If you told them the governor was thinking about building a highway on the head of a pin and paint it pink, the council would endorse it. They’re contributions to this discussion are meaningless.

  2. As part of any discussion about adding revenue for these projects we must also look to maximize every tax dollar spent for these projects.

    We are spending nearly 4 times per mile the national average for highway construction and maintenance. The supporting data showing our huge cost disparity is found on the Federal Department of Highway Administration site, (https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/statistics.cfm), see year 2016, specifically reports SF2, SF4 and HM81 for the most recent data. The data the Federal Government uses is supplied by the State.

    Imagine if we could reduce our costs to twice the national average, the need for Tolls or borrowing would be significantly reduced or eliminated.

    The beleaguered tax payer must be confident that their tax dollar is being spent as efficiently as possible. Expected a Governor who advertised himself as a business man to look at cost of delivery before burdening tax payers further.

      1. Thank you for your reply, would greatly appreciate your detailed analysis proving the data is incorrect. The data is submitted by each State annually and CT data is consistent year over year. Until the Mirror publishes a thorough analysis refuting the FHWA data, data provided to FHWA by the State following FHWA guidelines, the FHWA data is the best available in order to compare state highway construction and maintenance cost performance.

        From the Federal Highway Administration site:

        “Most highway data are submitted by the States directly to FHWA. Each
        State’s data is analyzed for completeness, reasonableness, consistency,
        and compliance with data reporting instructions contained in “A
        Guide to Reporting Highway Statistics”

      2. See CT budget documents (detailed breakdown in Governor’s budget for FY 2015 is at
        https://portal.ct.gov/-/med… ).

        The expenditures for highway administration can AT MOST be:

        $28,021,970 (for Highway/Bridge Engineering, Rights of Way, and Construction Services)
        $317,036 (for Highway and Bridge Research)
        $19,675,243 (for Transportation Administration)
        $7,774,661 (for Transportation Policy and Planning)
        $36,016,080 (for Agency Management — including rail and bus)
        for a grand total of $91,804,990.

        In addition, assuming that all of this money went for payroll (which is not true, but most of it did), add another 65% for fringe benefits, which brings the total up to $151,478,823. which is FAR FAR SHORT OF THE $403,072,000 used by the FHWA.

        Using the “state controlled highway mileage” figure cited by The Reason Foundation (4,054 miles), the real number for transportation administration per state controlled highway mile is accordingly about $37,365.

        That still ranks CT between California and Rhode Island, but it’s not a nearly as high as the number cited by the Yankee Institute.

      3. Thank you for your reply. I am not referencing either Reason or Yankee Institute reports in the original post. I prefer to refer to the source and make my own assessment.

        I am referring to year 2016 data tables SF-4 Sate Disbursements for State Administered Highways and HM-81 State Highway Agency Owned Public Roads found on the FHWA site. The data in these tables is provided by each State and verified by the Federal Government.

        Table SF-4 data includes:
        Capital Outlay
        Maintenance
        Administration/Research
        Law Enforcement/Safety
        Interest
        Bond Retirement

        For 2016 Table SF-4 shows total expenditures of 2,242,643,000 and table HM-81 show State Highway miles of 3720 giving a per mile cost of $602,861 compared to the National average of $178,244.

        For 2016 the STATE reported Administration costs of 375,577,000.

        The 2.2 Billion reported in 2016 is generally consistent with the information found in your article and from other media sources.

        Some other Comparisons:

        Maine – $760,001,000 Miles 8358 – $90,931/Mile
        New Hampshire – $553,526,000 Miles 3902 – $141,857/Mile
        Indiana – 2,274,192,000 Miles 11169 – $203,616/Mile
        Minnesota – 2,380,246,000 Miles 11811 – $201,528/Mile
        California – $6,865,291,000 Miles – 15,093 – $454,865/Mile
        Rhode Island – $604,599,000 Miles -1091 – $554,169/Mile

        If you are correct and we rank between Rhode Island and California we would still be vastly above the national average of $178,244/Mile. Our new businessman Governor and Legislature must address our excessive costs before any discussions of new revenue. Imagine if we could reduce by half to $300,000 per mile, still nearly double the national average, we would have no need for new revenue.

        If the information detailed on the FHWA site is inaccurate I suggest you go to the source of the information, the STATE, and determine why they would report inaccurately or check if the budget numbers in 2015 were accurate. From my business experience what was budgeted was not always what was spent.

      1. See CT budget documents (detailed breakdown in Governor’s budget for FY 2015 is at
        https://portal.ct.gov/-/media/OPM/Budget/2014_2015_Biennial_Budget/BudgetinDetail/Transportationpdf.pdf?la=en ).

        The expenditures for highway administration can AT MOST be:

        $28,021,970 (for Highway/Bridge Engineering, Rights of Way, and Construction Services)
        $317,036 (for Highway and Bridge Research)
        $19,675,243 (for Transportation Administration)
        $7,774,661 (for Transportation Policy and Planning)
        $36,016,080 (for Agency Management — including rail and bus)
        for a grand total of $91,804,990.

        In addition, assuming that all of this money went for payroll (which is not true, but most of it did), add another 65% for fringe benefits, which brings the total up to $151,478,823. which is FAR FAR SHORT OF THE $403,072,000 used by the FHWA.

        Using the “state controlled highway mileage” figure cited by The Reason Foundation (4,054 miles), the real number for transportation administration per state controlled highway mile is accordingly about $37,365.

        That still ranks CT between California and Rhode Island, but it’s not a nearly as high as the number cited by the Yankee Institute.

  3. The idea that will solve a lot of our budget issues is to force all town, city and state retirees to move back home. We stop the bleeding of shipping billions of our tax dollars down south. Image 50k residents moving into our state and the economic boom it would provide.

      1. One more answer for. It’s about 2 billion. There was an article in the courant about this a year or 2 ago.

    1. And how would you “force” people who left voluntarily to return to CT? Retirees are free to wander around the United States as they please and settle where they wish to. I am sure some people who escaped CT might raise constitutional objections to being “forced” to return. And how many “billions” of dollars are you talking about? Why single out town, city, and state retirees? Whose money is it anyway? Your proposal raises other questions, but the answers all depend on the answer to the first one.

      1. The answer to your first question. By tying all medical care to be provided by in state providers .Again this is about keeping CT tax dollars in our state. If the state wants to keep taxing hospital and medical care. This move would pay for that tax and also add jobs. Good paying medical jobs to our state. Answer another question. Its the tax payers money. Belive me .I have told my own mother who collets a NY state pension that she needs to stay on NY. Look at the exodus numbers. When CT residents keep leaving .When the people are gone. Who pays those penison benefits. No one. We all left.

  4. Not one mention by Lamont of establishing a “lock box” to protect toll revenues going directly to the general fund. If history proves correct, toll revenue will end up on the general fund. It happened to lottery revenue dedicated to education in the early 70’s. The gas tax increase after Mianus River and gross receipts tax after the Stratford Toll Booth Disaster both ended up in the general. So to will this tax increase.

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