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Transit Funds Could Go Far

State's Share Of Package Exceeds Expectations

August 11, 2005

Dozens of highway projects, transit improvements, new pedestrian pathways and other proposals throughout Connecticut received major funding boosts under a new federal transportation bill signed into law Wednesday.

The $286.5 billion package, which sets the nation's transportation spending through 2009, had been hotly debated for two years. That left Connecticut officials unsure about whether the state could afford to launch big projects beyond those already underway.

Now, many of those projects are likely to go forward, both because the state's annual transportation allocation will increase and because its congressional delegation added special spending, known as "earmarks," to the package for certain projects.

"We came out far better than we expected," said Manchester Mayor Stephen Cassano, a member of the state's Transportation Strategy Board. "There were even a lot of [earmarked] projects that we weren't aware existed. It's almost like Christmas."

Under the law signed by President Bush Wednesday, Connecticut's annual highway funding will increase by 19 percent, boosting it from $416 million annually in the previous bill to $500 million annually through 2009.

The state also will receive more than $130 million in one-time money for earmarked projects.

Connecticut received 104 earmarks, equaling about $98.29 per capita, according to the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. While it is above the national average of $85.94 per capita, it ranked Connecticut only 26th of the 50 states.

Alaska was on top with $1,501 in earmarked money per capita, followed by several Sun Belt and Western states.

Keith Ashdown, vice president of policy for Taxpayers for Common Sense, said Connecticut seemed to seek funds responsibly, calling its money "ethical earmarking."

Some of the earmarks include $55 million for the New Britain-Hartford Busway if it is launched; about $50 million for I-95 improvements; and $14.4 million to help finance the extension of Route 11 between Salem and Waterford, if the project goes forward.

Tens of millions of dollars are included to build and renovate bus and train stations in several Connecticut municipalities, and local roads and pedestrian pathways in several towns will be expanded or improved with earmarked federal money.

"In looking at a lot of these projects, we knew about some of them, but a lot of them, we didn't," said Charles Barone, a planning administrator for the state Department of Transportation. "I'm not saying by any means that they're not worthwhile, but we're still reviewing exactly what they are."

The state DOT was happy to see that the earmarks included some of its biggest projects, he said, including the busway money and about $11.6 million to help finance the replacement of the Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge, or "Q Bridge," over the Quinnipiac River, on I-95 in New Haven.

Cassano said the inclusion of certain projects - such as money for Route 11 and high-speed ferry improvements - means the transportation strategy board would not have to put aside as much in state funds for those projects.

"This is one of the biggest Christmas tree bills in Congress, and Connecticut clearly benefited from it," he said.

The nation's previous transportation funding law expired Sept. 30, 2003, and Congress passed 12 extensions since then to keep money flowing to the states for their highway and transit projects while the new bill was debated.

The most recent extension would have expired Sunday if the new bill had not been signed Wednesday.

Connecticut was among many states whose congressional representatives spent the past two years battling efforts by larger, politically influential regions that wanted major changes in the previous funding formula.

That formula eventually was changed for the new transportation bill, but not as drastically as some had feared.

Connecticut will get $1.29 back from Washington for every dollar that the state's motorists pay at the pump in federal gas taxes. That is lower than the $1.41 per dollar that Connecticut previously received.

The old formula's allocations - which were changed this time by a politically powerful coalition of Sun Belt states - were based on congestion, age of each state's roads and bridges, population density and other factors.

Connecticut did well under that formula because it is a congested state with old roads, where the higher federal allocation compensated for the fact that many vehicles cross the state and affect the roads without needing to stop and fill their gas tanks.

However, receiving $1.29 back from Washington for every dollar sent is still better than what some state officials said they expected.

"There's a lot of money there [in the federal bill] for projects that we just could never find money for at the state level," Cassano said. "It just makes our [state] money go a lot farther."

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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