Connecticut, New Haven region face major transportation challenges, fixes seen as economic driver

When it comes to people and goods getting from place to place, Connecticut is in a jam.

Traffic is backed up for hours, especially in Fairfield County and in Hartford. Roads and bridges are in dire need of repair. The New Haven regional airport has limited service because its runway is too short. And the state is in such desperate financial straits that tolls — last seen in Connecticut in 1986 — could return to the interstates.

To state Transportation Commissioner James Redeker, there are two major issues facing the state’s businesses and workers.

“The first is congestion, from a business point of view, [which] causes higher operating costs and lower productivity,” he said. “By the same token, it’s hard to attract people … just from a quality-of-life perspective.”

“In general, transportation is high on the list of things that businesses are looking for,” said Anthony Rescigno, president of the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce. For smaller companies, particularly, “it’s a lot of money: the cost of doing business, the cost of transportation to get people from point A to point B.”

Eric Gjede, counsel for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, said the group’s surveys show “the No. 1 transportation issue is congestion, particularly, obviously, on the I-95 corridor and the I-84 corridor in Hartford.

“We find that gives us the most trouble in getting to meetings on time, it limits your customer base … it impacts employees’ ability to get to work, makes it difficult to ship products,” he said.

Gjede called for keeping the state’s highways and bridges in good repair. “No matter what, if you’re trying to move products in the state … the last few miles you still need trucks and vehicles to move that and you need good roads for that,” he said.

Cost to business

Connecticut’s roads are a problem for business because “everything that gets moved is by truck in the state,” so they face a choice of increased time spent shipping during the day or paying extra for second-shift drivers to truck goods during non-rush hours, Redeker said.

For employees, “It’s not attractive to relocate and take a job in the state where commuting times are so long,” he said. That’s why the state wants to add “more capacity for trains and more expanded service area for buses.” The ideal would be for “every household in an urbanized area” to be “within half a mile of a bus.”

According to the state’s “Let’s Go CT!” plan, a $100.3 billion, 30-year blueprint issued in February 2015, “Each year, drivers spend up to one work week just sitting in traffic, costing nearly $1.6 billion in lost time and fuel, and $2.6 billion in higher operating costs, fuel, and accidents caused by deficient, congested roads and bridges.”

Locally, Rescigno praised the new Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge in New Haven, which “is actually working better than anybody actually thought. On the other hand, “West Haven is a particular issue right now because of the work that they’re doing” replacing the Interstate 95 bridge over the West River.

According to John Antonucci, supervising engineer with the state Department of Transportation, “traffic tends to slow down” on that stretch because of “minimal shoulders” while the center portion of the bridge is being built.

“Our next milestone date is June 12, 2018, [when] we’ll be opening all of the 95 northbound and southbound travel lanes and shoulders.” He said that date is two months ahead of schedule.

Rescigno said the traffic jams in Fairfield County are a major problem, however. “People going to New York … want to get there quick. You have to leave by 4 or 5 in the morning and then you have to come back by 2 or 3.”

Bruce Alexander, Yale University vice president for New Haven and state affairs, said improving transportation infrastructure is essential to reversing the “downward spiral” in revenue and jobs the state has suffered since the 2008 recession.

“Now some people seem to be saying that we can’t afford to fix the transportation infrastructure because we have to invest in other things, and I would say that unless we invest in transportation infrastructure we will not have the revenues to invest in those other things in the future,” Alexander said.

He said the state needs to keep up its investments in roads, rail and air travel.

“We’re in a global economy and a knowledge economy and we need our connections to the world,” he said.

While students, parents and visitors come to Yale from all over the world, Alexander said, “It’s really not about us. It’s about the community, it’s about jobs and it’s about taxes.”

A too-short runway

Rescigno said that for many New Haven institutions, the limited ability to fly in and out of Tweed New Haven Regional Airport also is a major issue. “We’ve got an Ivy League university, we’ve got a hospital that’s internationally known, we have other companies that want to be here … and an airport that’s close by would make a lot of sense.”

Now, only American Eagle flies out of Tweed, and only to Philadelphia. The Tweed New Haven Airport Authority is challenging in federal court a state law that limits the length of Tweed’s runway to 5,600 feet. That length, combined with flight path obstructions in the residential area where Tweed is located, makes longer flights or larger planes impractical because of the aircraft’s increased weight. If Tweed wins in court — a decision is expected in July — it would be able to pave one of the 1,000-foot grassy runway safety areas.

Tim Larson, executive director of the authority, is confident that the court will rule in Tweed’s favor and said opposition from neighbors has decreased. Noting the concentration of biotech and other industries in the region, Larson said, “We have an obligation to provide those business travelers the opportunity to come and go.

Between restaurants, hotels and conferences, “We generate somewhere between $35 [million] and $55 million of economic activity on and around the airport,” Larson said. He said the Tweed authority has been in conversation “with virtually every domestic airline and some others” and he foresees flights to Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Florida.

“I’m very confident that once we get the appropriate runway distance we will be able to get to those destinations,” Larson said.

Wider roads: Boon or boondoggle?

To relieve congestion on the state’s highways, the state Department of Transportation plans to widen Interstate 95 from New York to Rhode Island, a $2.2 billion job, according to “Let’s Go CT!,” and an eight-mile stretch of Interstate 84 in Danbury. But with state money to devote to transportation needs increasingly uncertain, transportation advocates say the money would be better spent focusing on repairing existing roads and bridges and on mass transit.

The Connecticut Public Interest Research Group Education Fund this year included the Danbury project, which is budgeted at $715 million, in its annual list of “highway boondoggles.” The report states that Danbury would be better served by improving the branch line of Metro-North Railroad’s New Haven Line.

ConnPIRG reports that, according to federal data, 338 bridges, 8 percent of the total, are structurally deficient and that 21,512 miles of public roads — 57 percent — are in poor condition. While maintenance is part of the state’s 30-year plan, it is not a high enough priority, said Kate Cohen, state director of ConnPIRG.

“In the state of Connecticut we have a lot of transportation problems and a lot of the problem is because we spend so much on these highway-expansion projects,” Cohen said.

Referring to I-84 and I-95, she said, “Like all roads they need routine repair, maintenance and rehabilitation, and so taking on an expensive and unnecessary expansion would drain resources that would go to the systematic maintenance of our existing roads and transit systems.”

According to ConnPIRG’s report, widening highways decreases congestion only temporarily as more new drivers take to the road.

Cohen cited a 2003 report by the Connecticut Transportation Strategy Board, which stated, “adding capacity to highways induces additional traffic, as people take additional automobile trips and new development creates even more demand. It is now generally accepted that states cannot build their way out of congestion.”

“Basically, most of these highway boondoggles are being justified to the public on the grounds that they reduce congestion,” Cohen said. “However, a growing body of evidence demonstrates that widening highways worsens the very problems they are intended to combat. As capacity expands, drivers recognize the opportunity and flock to the road in higher numbers.”

“I would disagree with that,” Redeker said. “The cost of doing nothing is astronomical and devastating to Connecticut’s economy.” He said the question that should be asked is “what is the cost of inaction, not the cost of action.”

In southwest Connecticut, he said, “Today you’ve got about 48 miles of congested roadway for four hours in the morning and four hours at night. If you do nothing, the congestion doubles by 2040.”

But by widening Interstate 95, adding bus rapid transit, improving Metro-North by dedicating the two inner tracks to express trains and implementing electronic tolls with “congestion pricing” — increasing the toll during high-volume periods — congestion can be eliminated by 2040, Redeker said. “I think it’s a compelling set of arguments,” he said.

Joseph Cutrufo, director of Connecticut policy at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said the worst congestion problems are on I-84 in the Hartford area and I-95 in Fairfield County. “Part of the root of the problem in Connecticut is it has a high share of people driving to work alone compared to other states,” he said.

“Governor Malloy was accused of trying to get people out of their cars and onto transit and we think that’s a good idea.”

Success on the rails

One of the state’s most highly touted transportation programs has been Metro-North, which has expanded service, adding 405 new M8 trains since 2011 at a cost of $1.1 billion, according to DOT spokesman Judd Everhart. Connecticut’s share was $745.9 million; New York state paid $359.82 million. Sixty more M8s, costing $232.3 million, will start going into service in September 2019, Everhart said, and the state has an option for 34 more.

Redeker said on-time performance this year has hit 96 percent, with 500,000 miles between repairs. Connecticut has also built “a state-of-the-art maintenance facility built for these cars” in the New Haven rail yard, Redeker said.

“The state can certainly do more,” Cutrufo said. “Governor Malloy has talked about turning the New Haven Line into a quasi-rapid transit service, having two express tracks and two local tracks, and that’s a way to run trains more frequently, provide better service.”

Besides reducing traffic jams, investment in trains and buses suits the needs of younger professionals who prefer to live in cities and get around without a car, said Cohen of ConnPIRG. She called Metro-North “one of the most successful commuter rail lines in the country” but said its weak link is the branch lines, especially the Danbury branch, which is still running on diesel fuel.

“A 2013 study estimated that the electrification of the Danbury branch line and expansion of service would reduce trip times by 19 percent and it would increase ridership by 46 percent by 2030,” Cohen said.

Redeker said “Let’s Go CT!” includes “electrifying the Danbury branch. Way out in the future it could provide a direct connection to New York,” eliminating the need to transfer in South Norwalk.

Another long-term goal is expanding Shore Line East, which runs east of New Haven, into Rhode Island, he said.

Meanwhile, the Hartford Line, between New Haven and Springfield, Massachusetts, is “still running on schedule and within budget for opening next year,” Redeker said. “This spring should be the big push on the Hartford Line.”

Insufficient funds

But any expansion would be impossible if money were unavailable. And last year’s transfer of $50 million from the Special Transportation Fund to close a general fund budget gap didn’t help. “There’s sufficient resources in the fund for the next two years,” Redeker said. “In the third year, there’s a cash shortfall in the forecast that can’t sustain operations as we know it today.”

That means the DOT could be forced to “stop mowing, stop plowing, filling potholes, putting up guardrails or subsidizing trains and buses,” he said.

“It would be catastrophic actually. It is fundamentally important to the state’s economy and as a value to the state of Connecticut that transportation is sustained as critical to a government service,” Redeker said.

According to the DOT, 60 percent of the department’s $626.2 million operating budget subsidizes public transportation, and 40 percent goes to operations and maintenance, including staff, repairs, equipment, jobs such as fixing guiderails and lights and “pay-as-you-go” repairs, such as filling small cracks in bridge decks.

When it comes to major infrastructure projects, the DOT turns to its capital budget, much of which is paid for with state-issued bonds, supplemented by the federal government. In fiscal 2018, $706.5 million of the DOT’s $2.1 billion proposed capital program will be supported by federal aid, according to the department.

“Our whole capital program starts with paying for state of good repair,” Redeker said. “You can’t have bridges falling down or potholes everywhere or trains that don’t run.”

However, mostly because of stagnant or declining tax revenue, “in 2020, the transportation fund does not have enough cash in it to pay for ongoing debt service and operations,” Redeker said. “Two years later, in 2022, there would be insufficient revenue to pay back bonds at all and we would be in default on our bond covenants.”

Compounding the problem, unless the law authorizing the federal Highway Trust Fund is renewed, the money available for highways nationwide will drop from $46.2 billion to $27.7 billion in fiscal 2021, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. Redeker said the state faces a loss of half the money it receives from the trust fund. “In four to five years we have a major problem on the federal and state side for capital funding,” he said.

Donald Shubert, president of the Connecticut Construction Industries Association, said subsidizing mass transit is adding to the state’s financial troubles. The budget for operating expenses of state-run trains and buses “has increased dramatically since 2007 and because transit services [have] driven up [Redeker’s] operating expenses so much he’s going to have a hard time issuing bonds,” Shubert said.

Next year, “the Springfield-to-New Haven rail line comes on line and that’s going to add at least $40 million to public transportation expenses,” Shubert said. Redeker has “more demands than he can deal with. He’s got congestion demands. He’s got state-of-good-repair demands,” he said.

When congestion and maintenance are sacrificed, the state’s business climate suffers, Shubert said. “What are the two things businesses consider? They consider mobility and workforce. We have the workforce but we’re falling behind in mobility.

“The only two things he has left are bus and rail service that he can cut and that can be drastic,” Shubert said.

Redeker said he believes the General Assembly will address the problem, as it did in 2015 when that year’s budget dedicated half a percentage point of the state’s 6.35 percent sales tax to transportation. “It’s my belief that we’ll see solutions, just like the dedication of the 0.5 percent sales tax,” which was “really an urgent decision,” he said.

“That solution postponed a disaster,” Redeker said, but did not solve the problem.

Shubert said that if the portion of the sales tax dedicated to transportation is diverted, “the Special Transportation Fund goes into insolvency in a year.” Redeker is “doing a good job but he doesn’t have enough money to meet the demands anymore.”

With revenues from the gas tax dwindling, electronic tolls are getting a serious look. The General Assembly’s Transportation Committee has approved a bill authorizing them against strong Republican opposition.

“Right now the bill states we’ll lower the gas tax by 2.5 cents” over five years, said state Rep. Antonio Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, co-chairman of the transportation panel. “We may end up tweaking that to 5 cents. Connecticut residents would get a discount.”

Guerrera said tolls need to be considered both as a way to generate revenue and as a way to reduce congested highways. “Obviously, the gas tax isn’t performing the way it used to … All these cars are getting better mileage; we’re getting electric cars, hybrid cars. We’re not going to the gas pump the way we used to.”

Guerrera said tolls would generate revenue from “all the out-of-staters that travel through Connecticut who don’t pay anything” and that the money would be devoted to infrastructure.

“The amount of revenue that you receive is astronomical,” Guerrera said. “This is a user fee … We have to pay for our roads and people understand that. The gas tax is basically going to be bankrupt within two years. … Let’s start moving on this before it’s too late and something bad happens.”

Cutrufo of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign said tolls are also a way to reduce excess traffic. Congestion pricing — raising the toll during peak travel times — helps but only to a limited extent, he said.

“If you can move a trip from peak hour to a different time of day, that helps but it has to be about moving people out of cars and onto transit,” Cutrufo said. “If you don’t want to pay the toll, take CT fastrak, take Metro-North and that’s been missing from the conversation.” CT fastrak is a dedicated busway that now runs between Waterbury and Hartford.

State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, co-chairwoman of the Transportation Committee, is adamantly opposed to tolls, saying that “states that have them … have lower costs in other areas.” She sees tolls as another tax on residents, who she said are already overburdened with taxes on income, real estate and pensions. The General Assembly “enacted 77 new taxes in 2011 without reducing anything else,” she said.

Boucher rejected the idea that congestion pricing would shift traffic away from rush hours, saying tolls would mostly hit those who “are required to be at work during rush hour. I would maintain that this is like a pay cut.”

Boucher also doesn’t see tolls pushing drivers off the highway and onto the trains. “It sure isn’t going to help anyone who’s not near a rail stop.” She said the best way to reduce traffic jams is “the improvement of our current roadways,” such as the additional lane added to the Exit 8 off-ramp in Stamford. “They could potentially do a lot in that area to reduce the congestion that they have,” she said.

Legislative Republicans have their own plan, “Prioritize Progress,” which the GOP says would eliminate the need for tolls and further tax increases. Key to the plan is capping that state’s bonding at $1.8 billion, but ensuring that a set amount — $411.3 million was proposed for fiscal 2017 — be dedicated to transportation.

“The issue is, we are changing what we bond, what we purchase, what we fund to only those essential items that we need,” Boucher said.

Gjede said the CBIA opposes tolls as well. “We don’t even think we should be discussing new sources of revenue until we stop transferring revenues from the transportation fund to the general fund.”

Staff reporter Mark Zaretsky contributed to this story. Call Ed Stannard at 203-680-9382.