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Agenda: Transit

Agenda 2011 State has to look at new financing systems

Hartford Courant Editorial

December 28, 2010

In 1969, the State Highway Department and some smaller agencies merged to become the state Department of Transportation, but for decades the only real change was the name. The department's main focus was building and expanding highways. In recent years, particularly 2010, that began to change. Nudged by Gov. M. Jodi Rell, among others, the DOT began to create a system of transportation that includes trains, planes, buses, trolleys and bikes as well as highways.

That opens great possibilities for energy-saving mobility and wiser land use if the state can find a way to pay for it.

The first transportation problem Gov. Dan Malloy and the General Assembly must solve in 2011 is financial. The Special Transportation Fund, created in the 1980s to fund transportation infrastructure, is expected to run a deficit of $37.7 million in fiscal 2012, according to state estimates. The DOT has nearly $2 billion in capital projects for which it has no funding. Also, the status of federal funding, on which many believe the state has relied too heavily for transportation projects, is uncertain, making it difficult for the DOT to contract for projects.

The state must have a first-class transportation system for the 21st century, and must find a way to pay for it.

How To Pay

One way would be to put all of the gross receipts tax a tax on petroleum products into transportation. Since 2005, about 40 percent of this tax has gone to transportation, and a state study found that the remaining 60 percent would have generated another $900 million over five years.

The gross receipts tax funds about 12 percent of the Special Transportation Fund. The motor fuels taxes generate 44 percent of the fund, according to state figures. Due to more efficient cars, higher gas prices and then the recession, revenue from the gas taxes dropped from 2005 until this year, when they rose slightly. The best option to pay the transportation bills is to raise the gas tax.

The MetroHartford Alliance has recommended a 3-cent increase per year for five years, which would generate $225 million a year when fully implemented. This would bring the tax to about where it was in 1998, before Gov. John Rowland shortsightedly began lowering it. Had it remained at that level, the $2 billion needed for infrastructure would be in the bank.

Moving Ahead

If Gov. Malloy and the legislature can stabilize transportation funding, the goal then would be to keep moving toward a balanced, multimodal system of transportation. That would mean, among other things:

Connecting transportation to land use, and only to land use. In other words, put state funds into housing and commerce around transit. This summer, a coalition of 16 transportation, environmental, business and smart growth groups issued a policy paper, "2010 Transportation Policy: A Roadmap for Connecticut's Next Governor," which recommended the state create a "transit village" program that would target funding to towns that intend to grow around transit. Such a program has been successful in New Jersey.

To get it started, the paper recommends that the state release $10 million in bond funds earmarked for transit-oriented development projects and consider a tax credit for medium and large businesses that locate near transit.

Adopting a fix-it first policy for roads and bridges. In other words, let's repair our roads and bridges, which are in comparatively poor condition, before widening or building new roads. Because widening and building new is what the state has been doing for 60 years, this will be a radical shift. But it must be made.

The $3 billion-plus Q bridge project, to replace an existing six-lane bridge over New Haven harbor with a new 10-lane span, is eating up nearly 45 percent of the road and bridge budget. That cannot happen again; indeed a project of this size probably cannot be built again without its own revenue stream, e.g., bridge tolls.

The state should limit road expansion to 5 percent of the budget, as New Jersey has done, and invest the rest in repairing existing roads and bridges as well as transit and bike-ped networks. That means finishing the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield rail project and the New Britain-Hartford Bus Rapid Transit line, and then expanding transit along heavily traveled routes. The Regional Plan Association estimated in early 2010 that transit options could be made available for as many as 64,000 residents who currently don't have access to it, at a cost of about $4.5 million a year.

If Connecticut can go from a state with a good highway system to a state with a good transportation system (that includes good roads), we reduce energy use, pollution and sprawl, improve our quality of life and become more attractive to business. The DOT has begun to move in this direction. Don't stop now.

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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