Local officials, transit workers raise concerns over transportation cuts

A SEAT bus makes the turn from State Street onto Water Street in New London as a winter storm blankets the region in snow on Feb. 8, 2016. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
A SEAT bus makes the turn from State Street onto Water Street in New London as a winter storm blankets the region in snow on Feb. 8, 2016. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Norwich — As the state grapples with how to fix its transportation fund, local officials and transit workers voiced concerns Wednesday to the head of the state Department of Transportation over the impact of proposed cuts. 

They expressed concerns over how cuts to transit districts would reduce bus service in the region, how the closure of rest areas would affect tourism and how to improve highway safety, but also offered ideas on how the state could address some of the transportation challenges.

DOT Commissioner James P. Redeker spoke Wednesday about the status of the Special Transportation Fund at a joint meeting of the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments and the Southeast Area Transit District board of directors.

The DOT anticipates the transportation fund will be operating at a deficit by fiscal year 2019.

"The challenge for the DOT at this moment — without additional revenues in the fund — was to reduce operating budgets and expenses in the fund to a point where the fund was positive and we can sell bonds," Redeker told the council. "That's the crisis that we're up against."

A total of $4.3 billion worth of capital projects, including the preliminary engineering for the widening of Interstate 95 between Old Saybrook and New London, are "postponed indefinitely" unless more revenue is added to the fund, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the state DOT announced last week.

DOT also previously has said items within its operating budget could be cut in the absence of additional revenue. Among the proposed reductions: completely closing rest areas; a 15 percent cut to SEAT and other transit districts in fiscal year 2019 and a 50 percent cut in fiscal year 2021; a 10 percent rail fare increase in fiscal year 2019, as well as 5 percent increases in fiscal years 2021 and 2022; a 50 percent reduction in Shore Line East service in fiscal year 2019; and a 15 percent reduction in DOT staffing.

Funding for local road maintenance also is anticipated to be cut in half, Redeker said.

Public transit

As local officials raised concerns over the impact on bus service and fares, Redeker said the funding issue has forced him to look at all areas for reductions and focus only on the essentials for maintaining the state's transportation system. Even with that, he said he is still not able to do the maintenance at the standards he would like. 

He added that it is "painful," especially because people depend on the bus to get to work, school and medical appointments.

Montville Mayor Ronald McDaniel, chairman of the SEAT board, said the proposed cuts to transit districts would force SEAT to reduce service. He agreed with Redeker that the cuts to bus service would affect "the most vulnerable populations."

Jaroslaw “Jerry” Pizunski, president/business agent of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1209 and chairman of ATU Connecticut Legislative Council, said public transportation is essential for people and helps the economy.

He offered ideas to boost transportation revenue, including a tax on car rentals.

"The STF is supposed to be a lockbox, right?" Pizunski said. "Everyone seems to have a key for it."

Redeker said the referendum — in which voters will decide if there should be a constitutional amendment for a transportation 'lockbox' — will be held in November.

Highways, rest areas

Salem First Selectman Kevin Lyden asked DOT to explore the possibility of making a truck route on Route 2 to I-395, which he said would alleviate issues on Route 85.

He also asked about improving safety on the stretch of I-95 between Waterford and Old Lyme.

Redeker said DOT is working to finish two studies on I-95 and is concluding that there are "spot improvements" to address congestion and safety issues in the southeastern and southwestern parts of the state. He said he would share more information once it is ready.

Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons raised the issue of the impact that the closure of rest areas would have on southeastern Connecticut, a region that depends on tourism. One of the state's rest areas is on I-95 in North Stonington.

"I volunteer to take the rest area," he said. "Give it to me. We’ll run it. We’ll have welcome signs. We’ll clean the trash. We'll sell stuff."

Simmons said he had been told he couldn't do that because the rest area is located on a federal highway, but wondered if there could be some way to allow it. 

Redeker said he's not in favor of any of the proposed reductions, and the closure of rest areas would be devastating to both tourism and safety.

He said the state has twice solicited proposals for private sponsors for rest areas but didn't receive any proposals. He added that he hopes the federal government will lift the restriction on privatizing rest areas, which would be another option.

Tony Sheridan, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, said it's a terrible image to have orange cones closing off centers.

Funding issues

Redeker said the need for transportation in Connecticut is "extraordinary," but the funding is not there.

He said the proposed cuts are all necessary to balance the transportation fund, unless the state finds more revenue.

At issue with the transportation fund is rising debt service, he said.

Redeker said projects have been paid for over the last 20 years without enough revenue to cover debt service. He said the gas tax was reduced by 14 cents in 1997, and it hasn't increased since then.

Redeker said that, at 25 cents, the state's gas tax is about the same as other states in the region, except other states have tolls to help pay for transportation. He said tolls, if approved, could yield about $750 million a year, but they would take four to five years to implement.

State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, a member of the General Assembly Transportation Committee and also Sprague first selectman, said the state in the long term should look at lowering the gas tax to be competitive with other states and increase transportation funding by implementing tolls.

Redeker said a tax on new car sales will be directed to the transportation fund starting in 2021 but said that won't happen "soon enough." State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, said he is looking to see if there is a way to accelerate the implementation.

k.drelich@theday.com

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