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Connecticut: Road, Bridge Projects Face Funding Reality

DON STACOM

November 20, 2009

HARTFORD - Across Connecticut, communities and business leaders are lobbying the state to widen their highways, build interchanges, replace bridges and expand public transit systems.

But there's a $3.7 billion gap between what they want and what Connecticut can pay for, Transportation Commissioner Joseph Marie told legislators Thursday.

"What can get accomplished in the future will be drastically different than current expectations," Marie said.

Lawmakers, Gov. M. Jodi Rell, state budget officials and Department of Transportation leaders will "need to have a dialogue" over the next year about setting priorities, Marie told the transportation committee.

Several legislators called his report "sobering," and agreed the state will probably have to postpone or cancel projects even politically popular ones that have been in the works for years.

"We'll be very much constrained by our finances," said Sen. Donald DeFronzo, co-chairman of the transportation committee. "This will test our discipline and our will. We have more than enough projects in the queue and far fewer resources than we need."

Marie intends to propose a priority list of major highway and transit projects for the next five years. He promised it will emphasize preservation of existing roads, bridges and transit infrastructure.

Historically, the state has maintained "a 'wish list' for every project conceivable in the state. We must be more disciplined," Marie said. "Including projects that have little real chance of being initiated ... sets false expectations."

Tom Maziarz, transportation director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments, told lawmakers just how painful that's going to be. He said between $200 million and $300 million worth of improvements in his region are at stake.

"Route 4 in Farmington, Route 44 and Route 6 in Manchester, New Britain Avenue in West Hartford, Burnside Avenue in East Hartford ... the list goes on," said Maziarz, who noted the 14 other regions in Connecticut all have lists of state road improvements that are at risk.

He advised finding new revenue, and pointed out that the rate of annual bridge repairs trailed off a decade ago when the General Assembly reduced the gas tax that paid for them.

"We're relying too much on federal funds, and we're not putting enough state funds in," Maziarz said. "We really need to think about alternative ways to raise revenue."

Lawmakers this year briefly discussed instituting tolls on state highways, and informally talked about raising the gas tax. But they didn't push either measure forward.

Marie declined to specify which projects he thinks should be cut, but alluded to the Route 11 extension, the I-84 expansion in Waterbury and Route 7 improvements in southwestern Connecticut at one point.

"I am not suggesting that the project[s] mentioned above do not have their merits," he said. "But we must balance the financial requirements of these projects against what we can afford."

State Rep. David McCluskey, D-West Hartford, cited the long-delayed $562 million New Britain busway as a project that deserves closer scrutiny. There's no sign of broad support for it in the communities along the proposed route, he said.

"West Hartford is less than enthusiastic about it; Hartford is quiet about it," McCluskey said. "The silence is deafening."

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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