Malloy, DOT: $4.3B in transportation projects 'postponed indefinitely'

Traffic on I-95 northbound crawls up the hill toward Exit 74 in East Lyme Tuesday, August 23, 2016. Gov. Dannel Malloy on Jan. 10, 2018, announced that a project to widen the highway in the area has been postponed indefinitely. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Traffic on I-95 northbound crawls up the hill toward Exit 74 in East Lyme Tuesday, August 23, 2016. Gov. Dannel Malloy on Jan. 10, 2018, announced that a project to widen the highway in the area has been postponed indefinitely. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

A total of $4.3 billion in transportation projects across the state, including work on Interstate 95 in southeastern Connecticut, are "postponed indefinitely until new revenue is appropriated for the Special Transportation Fund," Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the state Department of Transportation announced Wednesday.

Malloy said that his administration will release proposals before the legislative session that — if met with approval from the legislature — would allow the state to reinstate the projects, according to the governor's news release.

"If we want to compete in the 21st century economy, we need a transportation system that works for people and businesses, and we need to invest in transit-oriented development to build the communities where people and businesses want to be," the governor said in a written statement on Wednesday. "I want to be very clear — this is preventable, but it requires immediate action. The legislature must act this year to avoid potentially devastating setbacks to our transportation system."

Southeastern Connecticut projects slated to be "postponed indefinitely" include $24.875 million toward the preliminary engineering associated with widening Interstate 95 between the Baldwin Bridge in Old Saybrook and the Gold Star Memorial Bridge in New London, and $60 million for safety improvements on I-95 from the Mystic River Bridge to the Rhode Island state line. That project included upgraded guiderails, illumination, signage and bridge parapets, and the lengthening of acceleration and deceleration lanes at various interchanges, according to DOT.

A $375,000 pedestrian safety improvement project to replace traffic signals at five intersections along Route 32 between Deshon Street and Benham Avenue in New London, and $11 million for mechanical and electrical repairs on the Route 156 bridge over the Niantic River are among the postponed projects, according to DOT.

Also postponed was $576,000 in funding to help replace the North Stonington bridge over Whitford Brook in Old Mystic, which has been closed since the March 2010 flood.

The towns of Stonington and Groton would have to match the state’s $576,000, splitting the cost between them. While Stonington has appropriated its share in its capital budget, Groton has not done so. Old Mystic Fire Chief Ken Richards repeatedly has warned that the closed bridge delays the response of firetrucks and creates a traffic hazard when they have to negotiate the intersection of Route 27 and Main Street by the Old Mystic General Store.

Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons called Malloy’s decision to postpone funding for transportation improvements across the state “profoundly disappointing” and “shameful.” He said the state had promised taxpayers that the money would be used to improve roads, bridges and rail lines but now is “being stolen” for other purposes.

State Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Lyme, also questioned whether DOT had an answer on how to improve safety on I-95, if the widening will be postponed.

Transportation fund

DOT Commissioner James P. Redeker said the state "needs immediate action" to fix the transportation funding issue. "As Governor Malloy noted last month, the solvency of the Special Transportation Fund is in doubt without new revenues," he said in a statement.

Last month, Malloy called attention to a report from DOT and Office of Policy and Management that projected the transportation fund would head into deficit by fiscal year 2019 if the state doesn't resolve the problem, according to the governor's release.

Senate Republican President Pro Tempore Len Fasano, R-North Haven, issued a statement Wednesday that said Republicans had "developed the Prioritize Progress transportation funding plan years ago, but Gov. Malloy and Democrat lawmakers ignored our proposal."

In a statement, state Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, co-chairman of the General Assembly's Transportation Committee, called for the state to approve tolls or "another revenue stream" during the 2018 legislative session.

State Rep. Chris Soto, D-New London, said by phone Wednesday that drivers avoid the state gas tax by filling up on gas outside of Connecticut and then add wear and tear to the state's roads by driving through.

He said critical improvements, like the widening of I-95, require revenue, and tolls are part of the solution.

"It's not the silver bullet, but it's part of the solution," he said.

State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, a member of the Transportation Committee, said improving the state's infrastructure is important for economic development. She said the committee will be meeting to discuss the projects on the list and other cuts.

She also supported discussions on tolls: "We have to look at a steady revenue stream that will deal with these issues," she said. "Every other state around us has tolls and every other state has people that drive through them that help them pay for infrastructure, and I think we have to look at that."

But state Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, said by phone Wednesday that before the state should even debate the pros and cons of tolls, it needs a comprehensive study that measures all the costs associated with installing and operating tolls and any ramifications on reimbursement from the Federal Highway Administration. He said that even if the state approved tolls, it would take years to implement them.

He said the state should focus on "first things first" and should not transfer money out of the Special Transportation Fund. He said the bipartisan budget approved in the fall calls for a redirection of the tax on motor vehicles into the fund, but it won't go into effect immediately. He said the legislature should have conversations to see if it could accelerate it without affecting the General Fund.

"The history of raiding the [transportation fund] over the years is coming back to haunt us," Formica said. "At this point, we need a viable transportation plan that is going to move the state forward."

Carney, ranking member of the Transportation Committee, said in a phone interview he is seeking for DOT to provide information on the highest-priority projects, what projects can be delayed and any projects that are not feasible to be completed in the scheduled timeframe or on budget.

He said he felt the governor and DOT should have kept a more watchful eye on the debt service that has increased over the past few years and is set to dramatically increase over the next five years.

Carney said he is open to listening to all proposals but he said tolls would not be a solution to the current deficit problem because they would take years to implement. He added that if the state ultimately does consider tolls, the 72 toll locations proposed by DOT would be far too many. He also said the focus should be on out-of-state drivers.

Carney supported the constitutional amendment to implement a transportation 'lockbox,' which voters will have a chance to vote on in November.

Day Staff Writer Joe Wojtas contributed to this report. 

k.drelich@theday.com

More delayed projects

Among the postponed initiatives on the state Department of Transportation's list are local road projects: $273,850.20 for Meeting House Lane over Cove River in Montville; $132,122.14 for Shewville Kate Swamp Road over Indiantown Brook, $141,140.03 for Stoneybrook Road over Billings Avery Brook, and $333,259.52 for Lantern Hill Road over Whitford Brook in Ledyard.

The list also include several bridge replacement projects that include $1.5 million for the bridge over Wyassup Brook in North Stonington, $2.6 million for the Route 97 bridge over Cold Brook in Norwich and $1.7 million for the Route 85 bridge over Little Brook in Salem.

Additionally, a guiderail project on I-395 from Route 2A to Route 2 in Norwich will be delayed.

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