Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has made headlines as a "transportation governor." He's put shovels in the ground for key transit projects and embraced a "complete streets" approach so that roads are safer for everyone who uses them. Overall, the state is spending transportation dollars in a more balanced way than in previous years, according to an analysis we at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign released last month.
But the state still plans to spend more on costly road expansion than its neighbors, and there are worrying signs that investment in environmentally and economically sustainable modes — rail, bus, biking and walking — could drop off in future years unless the state Department of Transportation starts planning for the future now.
Fewer than 30 percent of Connecticut's road miles are in good condition and roughly a third of existing bridges are deficient, according to the Federal Highway Administration. The American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials estimates that the average motorist in Connecticut spends an additional $313 on maintenance and fuel costs as a result of poor road infrastructure.
Yet the DOT plans to spend 41 cents of every road and bridge dollar on highway and bridge expansion projects. That's far too high, especially given existing repair needs. And the state hasn't learned the fix-it-first lesson in the same way as its neighbors have. According to our research, Massachusetts spends just 26 cents of every road and bridge dollar on expansion, New York just 14 cents, and Rhode Island only 11 cents.
Experience shows that highway expansion provides short-term relief at best, while costing enormous amounts of money up front and adding to overall maintenance costs. For example, the DOT recently announced it would spend $500 million to widen a stretch of I-84 in Waterbury that's just three miles long, or roughly $166 million a mile. Once the new lanes fill with traffic, there won't be any way to increase capacity save another expensive widening.
On the other hand, officials can boost capacity on rail lines and bus rapid transit systems by running more trains or buses as demand increases. In the past six months, Metro-North has added 54 weekly trains to the New Haven Line, which hit record ridership levels in 2012.
The DOT plans to spend a healthy amount on public transit — 44 percent of planned capital spending. However, a quarter of that represents investment in the New Haven-Springfield rail line and the CTfastrak busway, which get significant funding from one-time federal grants. It's time for the state to plan the next generation of transformative transit projects.
Planners and local officials understand that pedestrian- and cycling-friendly neighborhoods, especially in downtowns and near transit stations, offer huge benefits for businesses, public health and quality of life. Efforts are underway to improve the pedestrian experience in Stamford, Hartford, Bridgeport, New Britain and other municipalities.
The state is doing a better job of supporting their efforts. In the 2007-2010 State Transportation Improvement Program, known as STIP, which outlines the state's planned transportation spending, the DOT spent less than 1 percent of transportation funds on these types of projects. In the current STIP, which projects transportation spending of $4.26 billion in 2012-2015, this has more than doubled, to 2 percent. But much of the money is coming from federal earmarks, a funding source that no longer exists. The DOT needs to identify sustainable sources of funds moving forward.
While transportation legislation passed by Congress last year keeps federal funding flat, it also gives states more flexibility over how they can spend their cash. For example, federal money that's typically spent on the interstates can be used to improve public transit in the same corridor, as long as the transit project will reduce highway delays and is more cost-effective than road widening would be. Similarly, there's broad flexibility to spend transportation funds to improve walking and biking.
With limited funding available, but greater flexibility in how to spend those dollars, it's even more important that Connecticut focus on smart transportation investments. Gov. Malloy can continue leading the way by repairing the state's existing road network and doing more to orient the transportation system around transit-connected, walkable and bikeable hubs.
Steven Higashide is the senior planner and Connecticut coordinator for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit transportation watchdog group working in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. The full report, "Tracking the Dollars," can be found at http://www.tstc.org.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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