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Three Top Democrats In Legislature Skeptical About Rell's Mass Transit Plans


August 08, 2010

HARTFORD As Gov. M. Jodi Rell this week seeks $486 million in bonding for two mass transit projects, she's getting tough questions from an unexpected source: Democratic legislators.

In her final months in office, Rell is pushing her plan to dramatically upgrade Connecticut's passenger rail service. She wants to commit $226 million to buying 80 more high-tech passenger cars for Metro-North's busy New Haven line, and $260 million to build the foundation for new commuter rail service linking New Haven, Hartford and Springfield.

Mass transit projects typically get enthusiastic backing from most Democratic lawmakers, but at least three prominent Democrats in the General Assembly appear skeptical about Rell's plan. Two of them will meet with senior members of her administration today to get details before a key vote Wednesday by the State Bond Commission.

"There are some concerns. I don't know if they're enough to derail this, but we should have more information about why we need to commit this much right now," said Sen. Donald DeFronzo of New Britain, co-chair of the transportation committee.

If the bond commission backs Rell's proposal, a huge amount of Connecticut's future transportation dollars would be set aside for just two projects, DeFronzo said. The state has only about $1 billion to $1.2 billion available through transportation bonds, which are repaid from gas tax receipts. Tying up $486 million of that would leave the next governor with little flexibility for funding other highway, bridge, rail or bus projects, DeFronzo said.

DeFronzo and Rep. Gary LeBeau of East Hartford, co-chair of the legislature's transportation bonding subcommittee, are scheduled to meet today with Transportation Commissioner Jeff Parker and Michael Cicchetti, deputy secretary of the governor's budget office. They want details about why Connecticut should exercise its option to buy the additional 80 M-8 cars now; the state already has 300 on order, and won't receive all of those for at least two and a half years. DeFronzo and LeBeau also want to know if the first M-8s that arrived in the winter are functioning properly; the state is running those cars through months of tests before putting them into regular service.

Sen. Eileen Daily of Westbrook, who serves on the State Bond Commission, last week told the Stamford Advocate that she, too, is concerned about committing nearly $500 million for just two projects.

Rell, however, has emphasized that legislators already named the Springfield-New Haven rail initiative as the first priority for transportation bonding. Building commuter train service through the center of the state with the possibility for interstate high-speed trains later on will create jobs and improve the state's transportation network, she said.

"When we upgrade the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield rail corridor we will accomplish those goals. Moving people and products ensures the health of our economy," Rell said in a statement Saturday.

Connecticut applied last week for $220 million in federal rail funding for the project, and putting up $260 million in state money will greatly strengthen the chance for getting that aid, she said.

Rell also said the 80 additional Metro-North cars have been in the budget plans for years. The state plans to replace hundreds of faltering 30- and 40-year-old M-2 and M-4 cars on the Metro-North line. It has ordered 300 first-generation M-8s from Kawasaki Railcar, with an option to buy 80 more. Exercising that option now will save the state money in the long run, and will ensure enough cars for the New Haven line and for the Shoreline East system, she 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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