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State Turned Down In Request For $630 Million In Federal Transportation Funds

DON STACOM

February 19, 2010

HARTFORD - Connecticut came away with absolutely nothing in a competition for $1.5 billion in federal transportation grants this week, angering the congressional delegation enough that it has demanded a meeting with federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood next week.

Connecticut is one of just nine states to come up empty.

"I was outraged when I got the news," U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, said Thursday afternoon. " Chris Dodd was exceedingly angry. John Larson was not happy. We all called the White House. This is just unacceptable," Himes said.

At least one state lawmaker is saying that Connecticut's transportation department dropped the ball, particularly since this is the second time this month that the state has fared miserably in competition for major federal transportation aid. State DOT officials insist that they are as disappointed as anyone and that they've done everything possible to win a share of the money.

The loss also is a severe blow to the state's battered construction industry, where unemployment runs about 30 percent, and many small contractors are struggling to stay solvent.

Altogether, the state sought $630 million from the federal transportation stimulus program known as TIGER Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery. Of that, the state DOT sought $330 million, and individual cities and regional planning associations applied for $300 million.

The effect on Connecticut's backlog of bridge, highway, railroad and port repairs could be profound. The state DOT had sought $170 million to help pay to replace the Moses Wheeler Bridge over the Housatonic River on I-95 between Stratford and Milford. That money also would have helped to create the New Britain-to-Hartford busway; rebuild the I-91 and I-95 interchange in New Haven; and construct a wheel-milling shop at the New Haven rail yard.

All of these jobs will go forward, DOT spokesman Judd Everhart said Thursday. But if the state had landed the federal grants, it could have transferred $170 million from those projects to pay for other highway and transit repairs.

Several projects, however, "will not be moving forward, at least not with DOT participation in the near future," Everhart said. The state DOT asked for $160 million to upgrade freight rail systems across the state, to redesign five downtown Stamford streets and to create a bus system there to stimulate a major economic development project. Part of that money would have gone to build a new train station on Metro-North's Danbury line as the centerpiece for a transit-oriented development project.

State legislators and congressional staffers Thursday were puzzled at how Connecticut, one of the most densely populated states with severe traffic congestion, could get nothing from Washington. Tens of millions of dollars went to remote spots such as Port Huron, Mich.; Oglala, S.D.; and Lake County, Mont.

"Zero is zero. The [state] DOT says we have a desperate need to invest in our infrastructure, and here was a chance for federal money," said state Rep. David McCluskey, D- West Hartford, a key member of the General Assembly's transportation committee. "I'd like to know if there's anything they're going to learn, if they're going to change their behavior and find out what the successful applicants did."

McCluskey and others have acknowledged that despite a bipartisan "celebration" by top politicians recently, Connecticut actually performed poorly in a separate competition for high-speed rail funds. The DOT has said it would cost $800 million to $1 billion to rebuild Amtrak's New Haven-to-Springfield line to accommodate commuter trains and 110 mph intercity trains; Connecticut came away with just $40 million of the Obama administration's $8 billion funding bonanza for high-speed rail.

Larson and Dodd both have said that the state DOT needs to do a better job of preparing its case before the next round of high-speed rail funding is distributed. But neither they nor Himes blamed DOT for this week's failure in the TIGER competition.

"I looked at their applications [for projects] in my district, and they were fine," Himes said. Himes largely represents Fairfield County.

Himes said he, Larson and Dodd all contacted White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel to complain Wednesday. They've arranged a meeting with LaHood, who oversees disbursement of federal transit dollars, and plan to make a pitch for Connecticut to get a hefty share of $600 million in additional transportation stimulus grants that will be given out in the fall.

"This is a disappointing result to this round of funding, and I will speak with officials back in Washington to figure out what happened," Larson said in a statement.

"There were several highly qualified applications from our state, which should have been awarded funding from this program," a Dodd spokesman said. "The senator will be seeking specific answers from the administration."

State Rep. Antonio Guerrera, D- Rocky Hill, co-chairman of the General Assembly's transportation committee, said he plans to convene a hearing later this winter to ask the DOT what went wrong. But he said he's not willing to blame the agency yet.

"I want to get all the facts," Guerrera said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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