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Fix state's aging transportation system

Published June 26. 2014 4:00AM   Updated June 27. 2014 5:22PM

It was on June 28, 1983, 31 years ago this week, that a section of the Mianus River Bridge collapsed on Interstate 95 in Fairfield County at 1:30 in the morning, sending two trailer trucks and two cars into the river below and killing three people. Only the early hour prevented a much greater loss of life on the heavily traveled highway.

A federal investigation revealed the state had delayed maintenance and repairs because of a lack of funds, which Gov. William O'Neill and the legislature set out to remedy. A Special Transportation Fund was created to maintain and repair the state's roads and bridges and a 25-cent gas tax and a gross receipts tax on other petroleum products were set aside to fund the projects.

The state appeared to have learned a costly lesson but it proved to be only temporary. Legislators and governors soon began using the fund to pay for other things or to help budgets look balanced. Over the years, only about 48 percent of the gas tax revenues ended up paying for roads and bridges.

But last year, just in time for the 30th anniversary of the bridge collapse, officials were faced with a report that more than 400 bridges in the state were structurally deficient, including 100 in Fairfield County, site of the bridge tragedy. The number, now 413, was confirmed by the Federal Highway Administration on Tuesday.

The report led to legislation barring gas tax money from being diverted but its implementation was postponed until 2015, giving lawmakers one more year to tap the Special Transportation Fund. Unfortunately, these newly protected revenues will not come close to paying for the work that needs to be done. We're talking about something on the order of $16 billion in unfunded projects over the next 20 years.

All of this was dramatized recently, this time without loss of life, when the 118-year-old railroad bridge in Norwalk repeatedly got stuck in the open position, blocking passage for thousands of railroad commuters for hours. Replacing the bridge had been a priority for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, but he didn't quite make it.

And it may not be the only expensive railroad bridge repair or reconstruction bill coming due on this governor's watch or that of his opponent, depending on who wins in November. The Norwalk bridge is one of four movable bridges on the New Haven line, all of them at least 109 years old and all rusting away.

As the Connecticut Mirror first reported after the Norwalk bridge was closed, there's no ready funding for it and the administration is relying on a share of the $3 billion federal fund set aside after hurricane Sandy "to protect critical transit infrastructure from being damaged or destroyed by future natural disasters."

It may be something of a stretch to see the bridge fitting that description when the state's hardest hit by Sandy, New York and New Jersey, are seeking more than the entire fund. Connecticut wants a mere $349 million, or 10 percent. There are a dozen states vying for a share of the $3 billion.

Connecticut's elected officials may have learned something from the looting of gasoline tax revenues for other purposes over the years but no one has said much about how the inadequate 25 cent a gallon tax will be supplemented to pay for other overdue infrastructure projects.

The federal Highway Trust Fund is also going broke after being misused like Connecticut's and a federal gasoline tax hike of 12 cents proposed by Sen. Chris Murphy and Republican Sen. Bob Corker, Tenn., isn't going anywhere, according to both the Obama administration and the new Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. He proposed opening federal lands for oil exploration, which won't go anywhere either.

There is some sentiment to revive tolls on some state highways. We like the idea, but only if there is mechanism to assure the revenues are used exclusively for transportation needs. The tolls were abolished after the first highway tragedy on I-95 in 1983, the crash of a trailer into a line of cars at the Stratford toll booth that took six lives.

So far, we haven't heard much about this serious emergency situation in the campaign for governor. Gov. Malloy points out he's the first in a long line of predecessors to begin to deal with the aged bridges, but we need to hear a great deal more from him and his potential opponents about paying to repair and replace roads and bridges now and over the next 20 years or more.

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