World-class state transportation plan won't neglect local needs
By Ellen L. Marmer
Great strides have been made to repair our state's transportation infrastructure, with $3 billion having been allocated to upgrade the railroad line between New Haven and New York and mass-transit projects proposed by the state Transportation Strategy Board.
Still, there is much more that needs to be done before we can call Connecticut's transit problems a thing of the past.
State leaders seem to understand the need for a comprehensive transportation plan. During the last General Assembly session, lawmakers made the state Office of Policy and Management responsible for assisting the TSB and asking the department to conduct a regional "build-out analysis."
It is critical that OPM takes its new duties seriously. Critical is for OPM to find ways to encourage transit-oriented development on existing routes and train stations.
Meanwhile, the state needs to help our cities and towns make repairs to local roads and bridges. Municipalities own and maintain 17,115 road miles, compared to 4,079 owned and maintained by the state, according to statistics from the Department of Transportation.
These local roads and bridges are in bad shape and made worse by motorists using them to bypass problems on our state highways. The increasing use of local roads is documented in a March 1998 study that Apogge Research/Hagler Bailly, a national firm specializing in infrastructure analysis, conducted for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.
The analysis disclosed that vehicle miles traveled on local roads jumped from 5.4 billion in 1986 to 7.9 billion in 1995. There is every reason to believe this trend is continuing.
The reality is that increasing use equates to the need for more road maintenance. This has been a difficult task for local municipalities because the state has cut back on the Town Road Aid grant money and the Local Capital Improvement Program. Cities and towns use funds from both programs to maintain and repair local roads and bridges.
How underfunded are these programs? TAR was budgeted at $30 million in the current state-spending plan. It represents a $2 million increase, but is less than the $35 million allocated in the 2001-02 budget. To just keep pace with inflation, towns and cities should receive $40.6 million this fiscal year.
A similar scenario exists for LOCIP money, which is a state-to-municipality reimbursement program for capital-improvement projects.
LOCIP has been budgeted for $30 million, considerably less than the $41.6 million our communities should receive in 2007 to keep the program in line with inflation.
To repair local roads in our state, we need a committed and comprehensive state-local approach. To be sure, the project should not start with the state issuing a blank check.
The state needs to ensure that cost-effective and wise investment decisions are made. To this end, revenue for transportation projects should go into a fiscal "lock box," ensuring that the money is used for the intended purpose.
Also, a transportation strategy with a timetable for projects is needed to ensure that work is undertaken, including when environmental impact and other studies are to be completed prior to the start of a project. This way, projects will not languish.
Additionally, the plan must be multi-model. It must create a transportation system that uses highway and rail transit along with water ports, bus system, airports, and more.
Finally, the state needs to make a new commitment to assisting municipalities with repair of local roads and bridges by increasing TAR and LOCIP. This commitment would help local government reduce the unfair burden on property taxpayers; lower costs for motorists; and improve the state's overall business climate and economy.
The last point is critical. The state won't solve its transportation problems by creating a world-class state transportation network, while not repairing our local roads and bridges. It will leave them in serious decay that will get even worse because our communities do not have the money to the job without help.
What's needed here is a partnership and commitment to putting Connecticut's entire road system back on a winning track. A partial fix is just not the answer.
The writer is the mayor of Vernon.
©Journal Inquirer 2006