When Gov. M. Jodi Rell announced bold steps last
month to increase funding for transportation, well-deserved
applause sprouted throughout the state. Connecticut residents
finally have reason to hope that longstanding transportation
headaches will finally be fixed. Moreover, it will help Connecticut
rejoin the rest of the region in robust economic growth.
To understand what an upgraded transportation network can do
for a state's economy, look at New Jersey, nestled on the other
side of New York City from Connecticut. New Jersey, whose population
grew 9 percent in the 1990s compared with Connecticut's 3 percent
growth, has made appropriate investments in transit. Thanks to
direct links to Manhattan, as well as improved intrastate service,
employment increased in northern New Jersey by nearly 10 percent,
while Connecticut's total employment grew by less than 5 percent.
Additionally, residential property values have increased significantly
near transit stops in northern New Jersey.
For Connecticut to compete, affordable housing must become more
accessible to workers. For that to occur, transit must become
more reliable and more accessible, making the ride to work faster
in general. Only 4 percent of Connecticut workers take public
transit to work, compared with 10 percent in New Jersey and 24
percent in New York. As I-95 and I-91 become more and more crowded,
public transit can become an appealing option for workers. Rell's
proposal addresses both of these issues, through the purchase
of 342 new rail cars and the construction of a new rail maintenance
facility, besides making improvements to I-95 and other highways.
The connection between reliable
transit and a viable state economy was well made in the Connecticut
Regional Institute for the 21st Century report in 1999 by Michael
Gallis, who wrote: "There
is very little inter-city transit within Connecticut. As congestion
increases in this corridor ... [the transportation system] will
not offer the level of access to the economic activities and
hubs necessary to support Connecticut's institutions."
With the General Assembly's
transportation committee having moved the governor's proposal
along to the finance committee, it's time to examine the various
fiscal elements of the plan. More funding above Rell's proposed
gas tax increase will ultimately be needed, possibly a slightly
higher gas tax or a small increase in the sales tax or personal
income tax. These options would only be effective, however,
if they are protected in a fiscal "lock
box." This is the only appropriate way to assure the public
that these funds will be used for transportation purposes only.
Additionally, with technology allowing high-speed electronic
tolling, tolls should be on the table.
The legislature should also consider moving forward with environmental
reviews of the proposed New Haven-Hartford-Springfield rail line
and the innovative New Britain-Hartford busway. If built, these
projects would place more people on public transit along the
I-91 corridor and the I-84 corridor west of Hartford.
Again, Rell deserves strong plaudits for her proposal, recognizing
that the state's economy must rely on a multi-modal transit system.
And the transportation committee's action deserves the same acclaim.
Now the other appropriate committees and the full legislature
must build on them as the legislative session moves on this spring.
As important as these fixes are to remove each day's commuting
annoyances, they are even more crucial in keeping Connecticut
competitive with its rapidly growing regional neighbors.
John Atkin is vice president and Connecticut director of the
Regional Plan Association.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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