Connecticut has finally begun to get its transportation infrastructure house in order, though it has miles to go to catch up with the rest of the nation.
Encouraged by an upgrade in the state’s bond rating from AA to AA+ and reminders that large amounts of federal funding will be left on the table unless the state steps up, the Bond Commission recently approved $1.1 billion in borrowing for infrastructure projects.
Gov. Ned Lamont quickly followed the Bond Commission’s action with a pledge to continue to beef up much needed staffing at the Department of Transportation, and indeed the DOT has hired 200 more staff since January, with several hundred more vacancies that must be filled. This is occurring in a state that currently sends more money to the federal government in taxes each year than it receives back in federal funding. (Connecticut receives $.74 in federal funding for each dollar sent to Washington.)
Although the Bond Commission’s vote seemingly came as good news for Connecticut’s aging transportation network, it was quickly followed by a revelation that 900 jobs were lost in Connecticut’s construction industry in September, placing Connecticut 48th out of 50 states in construction job growth last month and 42nd over the past year. Spending on construction projects is known to have a significant multiplier effect in job creation and sales of supplies. For example, a recent article in the CT Mirror cited statistics that show that $1 billion in bonding spent by Connecticut on capital projects results in 10,000 jobs.
In addition, to take advantage of all the federal transportation aid available to Connecticut, the state should be bonding at a level of $1.25 to $1.5 billion a year, according to state construction experts. The $1.1 billion falls well short of that goal.
At a time when the state is trying – however belatedly – to capitalize on federal funding and grow Connecticut employment rolls, a major stone has been left unturned. There are serious transportation challenges facing municipalities to meet infrastructure needs right where people live and work and significant opportunities for construction job creation at the local level.
Towns and cities across the state are struggling to keep their mill rates under control, pass budgets, maintain quality education, and cope with inflation and critical staffing shortages. And yes, state government has commendable initiatives such as the Local Bridge Program, which provides funding for the removal, replacement, reconstruction, or rehabilitation of local bridges; the Local Transportation Capital Improvement Plan (LOTCIP) that provides state funds to municipal governments for transportation projects of regional significance; and the Transportation Rural Improvement Program (TRIP), which offers help with much needed transportation capital projects in rural towns.
But millions of these state and federal dollars will be left on the table this year when towns and cities can’t come up with the necessary matching funds or the costly engineering required by grants to get projects shovel ready. For instance, the local bridge program for smaller structures requires that the municipality comes up with 50% match and all engineering costs, a heavy lift for less affluent towns. As one example of capital funding needs at the local level, this year’s heavier-than-usual rainfall has revealed serious inadequacies in many small bridges, for which rural towns are responsible.
Connecticut must make progress on much needed infrastructure improvements that hit people close to home. The guidelines for how states can use their American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars have changed, and state officials should consider whether this federal funding can be repurposed to best promote local participation by funding grant matching requirements..
Along with getting important projects up and running and boosting construction employment, the state should serve as a partner in local projects. This would take some weight off the already seriously over-burdened property tax that adds to a host of disparities in education and tax fairness.
That goal is certainly attainable. The Special Transportation Fund, which comes from gas taxes, is full to overflowing. Forty percent of this fund pays for the debt service on the infrastructure bonds. The opportunity to unlock federal grant money on very generous terms with just a 10 or 20% match has states working hard to strike while the iron is hot and leverage their funding. It won’t last forever.
Connecticut should seize this opportunity to make transportation infrastructure improvements a state and local priority, help lower property taxes, and at the same time reverse its construction jobs shortfall. Placing 48th is not a record to be proud of.
Susan Merrow is the Co-Chair and Michele Jacklin is a Board Member of the Property Tax Working Group of 1000 Friends of Connecticut.