President-elect Barack Obama is calling for robust investment in essential infrastructure as part of an economic recovery act. Gov. M. Jodi Rell recently met with Mr. Obama and her peers to discuss the opportunities in this package for states across the nation. If Connecticut plays its cards right, federal support could be available for some of our most ambitious transportation investments in decades.
There's only one problem: The most transformative transit initiatives here are not yet ready for construction.
Commuter rail service between New Haven and Springfield could have the single most positive impact on the mobility, economy and environment of central Connecticut. Yet an environmental review expected to take two years is just getting under way, meaning construction won't begin until 2011 at the earliest.
At this rate, any economic stimulus packages will come and go before the state is ready to receive any money.
Civic and business leaders must urge the state to compress the environmental review period from two years to six months — the rail line has been there for 150 years — and get this project ready for federal assistance by next summer.
This and other transit projects across the state, some in the planning stages for decades, are still not "shovel-ready," but their speedy implementation would help the state meet both short and long-term priorities.
On the far end of this recession, global warming, overdependence on foreign oil and volatile energy costs will still exist. We have an opportunity to advance projects that simultaneously provide immediate stimulus to the state's economy while moving us toward a more sustainable future.
Connecticut is in the process of creating statewide climate control, conservation and economic development plans. The federal stimulus package probably will come before these laudable plans are completed.
One thing is certain: Connecticut needs infrastructure that enables walking, biking, bus and train ridership, supports downtown revitalization, and maintains the road and highway network that we already have. Infrastructure projects that would expand the highway system would only work against our responsible growth and emissions reduction goals. Transit projects should be first in line.
A transit-based economic recovery act has the benefit of providing jobs and local economic impact during construction and operation. The New Haven-to-Springfield project, for example, would create nearly 600 jobs during construction, provide hundreds of permanent jobs along the rail corridor, add nearly $400 million to property values in central Connecticut, and provide job access and mobility alternatives linking population and job centers throughout the core of the state.
In addition, the New Britain-to-Hartford busway and the electrification of the Danbury branch exemplify solutions to Connecticut's current and future needs.
Perhaps of greatest short-term importance is upgrading the New Haven rail yard to accommodate the soon-to-arrive M8 cars. Without the facilities to store and service these cars, the full potential of this investment to enhance the capacity and quality of transit along the coast won't be realized. Although the costs for this project have escalated and will continue to with further delay, it is essential and we need to ensure that it is fully planned in preparation for federal assistance.
It's clear that Connecticut will not be the only state vying for infrastructure dollars. States all over the country are readying their lists and local resources to leverage federal support. While Connecticut has under-funded transportation for a generation, many states have developed innovative revenue streams that evenly spread the cost burden.
A New York gubernatorial commission just announced its recommendations for payroll taxes, tolling and fare increases to pay for transportation. What will be Connecticut's revenue stream?
If in a few months, President Obama is confronted with a choice between infrastructure projects in two states — Project A that includes local funding and reduces a state's reliance on fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions; and Project B that requires full federal support and solidifies a state's dependence on the automobile — which do you think he will pick? Which would you rather he choose?
• David Kooris is the Connecticut director of the Regional Plan Association.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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