On transportation, a moment of bipartisanship
Low-interest federal program could help parties create consensus
Newington — Democratic and Republican legislative leaders were upbeat Friday after a briefing by U.S. transportation officials about the potential of below-market federal financing for a significant portion of CT2030, a 10-year transportation infrastructure plan being finalized by the administration of Gov. Ned Lamont.
The Build America Bureau is one-stop shopping at the U.S. Department of Transportation for financing, and a team led by its executive director, Morteza Farajian, briefed leaders on what they say is a flexible menu of low-cost credit — less than 2 percent for highway loans that come with a repayment period of 35 years.
Some of the programs allow the state to defer payments until five years after substantial completion without incurring interest costs during the deferral, a provision that could delay significant debt payments well into the next decade, when Connecticut’s crushing pension and debt liabilities are expected to abate.
Given that some projects can take a decade or more to design, bid and complete, House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said the federal program essentially offers no-cost financing for 15 years.
“When you look at debt service it makes sense,” Ritter said.
The briefing at the state Department of Transportation was closed to reporters, but the remarks offered by lawmakers marked a rare bipartisan moment in a seven-month debate over how to maintain and modernize an aging transportation infrastructure that is one of the obstacles to sustained economic growth.
“I hope this is the critical first step toward a spirit of bipartisanship in addressing Connecticut’s transportation and infrastructure needs,” Lamont said in a statement. “Having Republicans, Democrats, and CTDOT leaders in the room is essential to ensuring everyone is at the table and prepared to transform our state’s roads, bridges, rails and airports in a way that will make Connecticut an even better place to work and live over the next decade and beyond.”
Farajian, who declined through the governor’s office to be interviewed, conducted separate briefings for lawmakers, municipal officials and representatives of the construction trades. Municipalities are eligible to seek low-cost financing for infrastructure.
The federal programs provide cheap financing for up to one third of eligible project costs on highways and up to 100 percent on rail. Funding is in place for the programs and not contingent of the outcome of the negotiations between congressional Democrats and President Donald J.Trump over a potential $1.8 trillion in new infrastructure spending.
Legislators say they expect the CT 2030 plan to have some tolling, perhaps for select bridges, but far less than the comprehensive system Lamont proposed in February. The difficult question of how Connecticut would pay its share — whether it could do so within current resources or need tolling or other new revenue — was left for another day.
“We’ll have to have that conversation about how we pay for it. We’re going to have to pay for it,” said Rep. Roland J. Lemar, D-New Haven, the co-chair of the Transportation Committee.
Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, and House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, and ranking Republicans on the legislature’s Transportation Committee all said the briefing by Farajian, a former state transportation official from Virginia, pointed lawmakers to potential areas of consensus, even if the GOP remains opposed to tolls.
“I think it’s a big step,” Klarides said. “I mean, I think it’s a big step in regards to something we may be able to get consensus on. It’s something that is fiscally feasible for the state of Connecticut. It’s something that’s affordable and something that has been working in the past, based on the examples they’ve given us, and it is something we should seriously consider.
“So I think it is game changer in a lot of ways.”
A dissenting view came from Sen. Alex Bergstein, D-Greenwich, who faulted the administration and legislative leaders for not pushing through a tolling plan. She was less enthusiastic about the impact of cheap federal financing, saying Connecticut will need either tolls or higher taxes.
“The feds are not going to bail us out,” she said.
Her tone surprised the other lawmakers.
“I don’t know what meeting she was just in, that’s for sure,” Fasano said.
The Lamont administration is trying to devise CT 2030, a mix of rail and highway programs aimed at cutting car and train commutes over the next decade, as a single, integrated project, an approach that the federal officials say is feasible.
Rep. Laura Devlin of Fairfield, the ranking House Republican on the Transportation Committee, said the GOP has been seeking an integrated, long-range plan allowing the state to accurately gauge its financial needs.
“That’s what Ryan is talking about, so that’s really encouraging,” she said, referring to the governor’s chief of staff, Ryan Drajewicz.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, called the approach “holistic.”
The Build America Bureau was established by Congress in July 2016 as a way to provide more flexible financing through some longstanding programs such as TIFIA, the Transportation Infrastructure and Innovation Act, and RRIF, Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing. Connecticut never has used them.
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