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State OKs $260 Million To Pay For Commuter Rail System


August 17, 2010

HARTFORD Despite the state's projected budget deficits, the brutal recession and opposition from fiscal conservatives, Connecticut lawmakers on Tuesday authorized borrowing $260 million to create a Metro-North-style commuter rail system between New Haven and Springfield.

"We know it's a lot of money, but look at the economic development this is all about jobs," Gov. M. Jodi Rell said after the State Bond Commission approved the project. "Every town with an interest in this is excited about the prospect of economic development along the way."

State leaders from both parties focused on the prospect of obtaining up to $220 million in additional federal matching funds, along with the widespread belief that the I-91 corridor desperately needs the economic energy of a modern, convenient train connection that will link it to Fairfield County and New York City.

"It is critical that we continue to move this project forward," House Speaker Chris Donovan said. "Frankly, our economic future is riding on it."

The initiative has bipartisan support, but recently became a focus of political battling over state finances.

Two Republicans on the bond commission voted "no" because they oppose any additional borrowing by the debt-laden state.

Rep. Vincent Candelora, R- Branford, said he doesn't oppose the rail project, but fears that Connecticut is spending previously approved bond money just to pay its week-to-week operating costs.

Treasurer Denise Nappier insisted that Connecticut has no cash flow problem. But Candelora wasn't convinced, saying that Nappier recently acknowledged that state government will be down to $600 million in cash a small amount in context of its $17 billion budget unless it borrows hundreds of millions more in the meantime.

But mass transit advocates said the timing for the rail line is too good to pass up. The Congressional delegation says it believes it can land up to $220 million in matching federal grants this fall.

"We feel confident. But without that $260 million in state money, we wouldn't have had a prayer," said Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, who pledged that he and the rest of the delegation will be "pounding on the door" of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to push Connecticut's case.

Connecticut is seeking the money from the Obama administration's $2.3 billion pool of grants for high-speed train initiatives across the nation. About 25 states have put in requests totaling more than $8 billion.

Connecticut's bid has the endorsement of 14 representatives and all six U.S. senators from the state, Massachusetts and Vermont, largely because it's a key piece of a bigger plan to run high-speed Amtrak trains between New York, Boston and Montreal.

"This is vital for our region's commerce, for our transportation system, for connecting Bradley (International Airport)," Larson said.

U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, among the project's most prominent supporters, issued a statement saying the line "will not only help people commute back and forth but will create jobs, build our state's infrastructure, and invest in the long-term economic growth of all of Connecticut."

Connecticut hopes to spend about $546 million of federal and state money, consisting of Tuesday's bonding, federal matches and previously approved funds, to add more tracks, bridges and signals along the 62-mile route so it can accommodate about 24 train trips a day. The plan is to link Springfield to Amtrak service north into Vermont and east to Worcester, then eventually into Boston. In New Haven, trains will connect with the heavily used shoreline route between Boston and Washington, D.C.

The state's bonding would be repaid by future receipts from the gasoline tax. State Sen. Donald DeFronzo, co-chairman of the transportation committee, told the bond commission that he supports the project, but cautioned that $260 million in borrowing will leave relatively little bonding available for bridge and highway replacements or other big-ticket transportation jobs.

The bond commission on Tuesday also postponed a decision to buy more passenger cars for Metro-North, and approved $15 million to help towns maintain local roads, $2.5 million to pay for capital expenses at several charter schools, $4.6 million for start-up costs at seven interdistrict magnet schools, and $5 million for financial incentives for new businesses.

Rell said she hopes to add the rail car purchase to another bond commission agenda this fall.

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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