DOT commissioner discusses transportation lockbox proposal with local officials

Norwich — State Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker told local officials on Wednesday that the state's transportation outlook has completely changed since he last shared “awful news” in January that the state was facing a funding crisis.

At that time, the state had been preparing to suspend a number of capital projects, cut subsidies to transit districts and reduce rail service in the absence of additional funding. The legislature since has passed a budget, in May, that added transportation funding. He said that with the additional revenue, transportation funding shows an "incredibly positive five-year trend."

But Redeker said DOT still is facing a problem, as it doesn't have control over factors like rising debt service, or personnel costs or benefits.

"We have very little control over our own destiny and, as a result, the transportation program is really in many cases outside of our control," he said during a presentation to the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments on Wednesday.

He told local officials that if they support transportation, the most important thing to do in November is to vote for an amendment to the state constitution for a transportation “lockbox.”

“That additional income could go away in an instant, because, look, transportation has its challenges, but so does the rest of the state,” he said.

Voters in November will decide whether or not to amend the state’s constitution to make sure that the funding in the Special Transportation Fund is used only for transportation.

The Board of Directors for the Southeast Area Transit District voted at its meeting Wednesday following the Council of Governments meeting to support the lockbox initiative.

Jaroslaw Pizunski, president/business agent for SEAT's drivers union, ATU Local 1209, and chairman of ATU Connecticut Legislative Council, said the ATU locals from across the state will be joining a statewide coalition to support the lockbox amendment. He said they don't want to see a repeat of this fiscal year's situation in which transit districts faced potential 15 percent reductions in their state subsidies.

"We want to have a lockbox where the money is going to go for transportation only, so it can't go anywhere else," he said. 

During Wednesday's presentation at the Council of Governments, Redeker also updated local officials that the Bond Commission previously authorized $10 million for an evaluation of tolls, following the governor's executive order. Redeker said the goal is to put out a request for proposals for assistance in developing a strategic plan for DOT's funding needs over 20 years, find out where the funding gaps are and what tolls might do if enabled, and complete revenue estimates, traffic impacts, environmental assessments, preliminary designs and public outreach.

"That said, none of that'll happen if the new governor doesn’t want it, so we’re kind of waiting to see what happens in the election," he said. "It would have to be a governor or legislature telling us to go forward, and if we started, it would be four to five years before we’d be in a place to actually start collecting tolls."

Redeker said DOT has run numbers that show tolls could generate a billion dollars net per year, and 40 percent of that would come from out-of-state residents.

By comparison, to generate $1 billion with the gas tax, that tax would have to be raised by 60 to 70 cents a gallon, he said.

Redeker said he'll do as directed regarding tolling but there are some reasons to do this to shift the burden.

"In fact, you could put tolls in and lower the gas tax probably and really shift the funding profile to out-of-state [drivers] and trucks paying more of their share," he said.

During the presentation, local officials asked the DOT commissioner questions and raised issues that included the high number of accidents and congestion on Interstate 95 in the region.

"95 has been a problem in eastern Connecticut for many years with the congestion," Waterford First Selectman Dan Steward said. "Come a Sunday afternoon, you can sit there for two hours to get from New London to Saybrook."

Redeker said the DOT has unveiled within the last year a proposal for partial widening of I-95 in spots, including improvements to the I-395 interchange, to reduce congestion.


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