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State Ready But Czar Needed

Hartford Courant

March 10, 2009

The game's afoot, as Sherlock Holmes so eloquently put it. The cash from Uncle Stimulus is on its way. Is Connecticut ready to spend it wisely?

The state expects to receive nearly $3 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, money that officials hope will save or create more than 40,000 jobs. About $1.3 billion of the state's stimulus cash will be designated for Medicaid assistance and $1.65 billion for a panoply of projects and purposes ranging from water quality and education to lead abatement and law enforcement. The state also can, and will, go after billions more in competitive grants.

Stimulus funds will come into the state through myriad channels. Some will go to state agencies, some directly to towns. A main focus of the program will be the investment of about $460 million expected for transportation infrastructure.

Since December, towns and state agencies have proposed more than 2,000 project ideas costing $12 billion. Most of these will not be funded.

A 20-member working group, made up of state officials as well as representatives from labor, the construction industry and municipalities, has begun meeting to identify and prioritize projects that are shovel-ready and shovel-worthy. The group is chaired by two members of the governor's staff, Matthew Fritz and Mary Anne O'Neill. The members met Monday and identified $200 million worth of bridge and highway projects that Gov. M. Jodi Rell wants to get rolling by next month.

These range from a $300,000 for traffic signaling in Manchester to the $73 million reconstruction of an Amtrak railroad bridge in Branford. The projects are wisely focused on the repair and repaving of existing bridges and roads. The state is not in dire need of new roads; it does need the roads and bridges we have to be safe.

The list released Monday has a good mix of large and small projects. These state projects will use about two-thirds of a total of $302 million designated for roads and bridges; the remainder will be municipal and regional projects. Given the cost of modern highway projects, this isn't a vast amount of money. It's important to stretch it as far as possible.

The working group is now focusing on how to spend the $137 million that the state will receive for public transportation and rail projects. We hope this money will advance the major transit projects underway in the state, such as the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter rail line.

President Barack Obama has insisted on transparency for the stimulus program, and state officials are on board. A website, www.recovery.ct.gov, went up last week. As the program moves ahead, the site will give information about projects, spending and job opportunities.

Mrs. Rell has also asked the legislature to fast-track a bill that would shorten permitting deadlines for stimulus projects. When projects are up and running, there will be an "expediting group" from the appropriate state agencies to help keep the work moving.

So state officials thus far are with the program. We'd like to offer three suggestions:

Put a planner on the working group; it's the group's glaring omission. A major criterion for judging whether projects should be eligible for funding is how well they advance the state's push for regional cooperation and smart growth. Thus it would help to have the advice of a Patrick Pinnell, Robert Orr or Alan Plattus, someone schooled in smart growth.

Use a "stimulus czar." These projects need to get moving muy pronto, and Mrs. Rell has set an aggressive deadline of April for hiring and groundbreaking on the projects selected Monday. Though the working group is first-rate, it is still a committee, and committees tend to spend time reaching consensus. Several states have put someone in charge, and we think that's a good idea. If the buck stopped at the desk of, say, a former commissioner of the stature of William Cibes, Emil Frankel or Lorraine Aronson, the public could have more confidence in the outcome.

Keep track of the "expediting" steps, to see if they can be made permanent. Transportation projects here, and in some other states, seem to drag on for years past their deadlines. For example, the New Britain-to-Hartford busway was initially supposed to open in 2006. Officials in Minnesota just demonstrated that doesn't have to happen. They just completed the new I-35W bridge, replacing one that collapsed in 2007, in 13 months. They beat a deadline by three months, going less than 2 percent over budget.

So it can be done.

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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