Transportation will carry Connecticut's future

The Romans built roads and spread an empire. President Dwight Eisenhower built the interstate highway system and made America greatly prosperous.

Railroad barons pushed the Central Pacific rail line eastward and the Union Pacific westward over government lands to a meeting place in Utah in 1869. Trains began to convey freight and travelers across the continent, opening up the country for development.

Growth requires the capacity to move people and goods as quickly as possible. Transportation makes connections, and connections are the source of markets, jobs and resources for industry.

Connecticut's future depends on making the decision now to field a transportation system that will move people and goods faster and affordably. The alternative is to lose our connectivity to the mega-markets of Boston and New York and any hope of appealing to younger workers.

State legislators, struggling with a punishing budget deficit, might be tempted to put off transportation projects as legislatures put off pension contributions. It is a good sign that on Thursday the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee followed the lead of the Transportation Committee and forwarded a bill that would allow the state to collect tolls. Our roads, bridges, railways and ports need far more than rehabbing. They need vision and investment, public and most likely private, because, as state DOT Commissioner James Redeker said at a transportation panel hosted this week in New London by U.S. Sen, Chris Murphy, "This year's fix" — addressing the budget deficit — "is a tiny drop in the bucket compared to the horror if we don't fix transportation."

Every decision of government at every level involves transportation. Think about that, and then consider that it takes longer now than it did 10 years or 50 years ago for a person or a truckload to cross Connecticut.

At the request of the state Commission of Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth, Redeker said, DOT came up with the 10-year plan to transform southeastern Connecticut and the rest of the state, eliminate congestion, speed up transportation, and improve rail. It would depend upon funding from the federal and state governments and could invite private investment. It could also suffer from the myriad decisionmaking processes that currently govern development in a state with 169 municipalities, each with an array of planning, zoning, wetlands, economic development and finance boards. 

The federal funding rules have changed under the Trump administration's infrastucture plan, which reverses the percentages of costs to be borne by states and the federal government. Connecticut is not well positioned to carry its share of the billions in costs, but it can tap some of the millions of dollars available under the recently passed Omnibus spending bill.

The Day, which has supported regionalization of local responsibilities and services, and the use of electronic tolling to pay for highways, recognizes the urgency of planning for the improvements that will not come quickly. As the Environmental Protection Agency notes on its website, the changeover from horses to motor vehicles happened over 20 years. Container shipping, which eliminated the need to repackage goods arriving in ports, was transformed over 30 years. And construction of the interstate highway system, starting in the 1950s, took 35 years.

Each of those set the nation up for its future growth.

To the credit of the members of the panel, held this week at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, each presented a 360-degree view of the challenges and opportunities, strengths and weaknesses of transportation in Connecticut. They represent ports, local buses, rail and commuter rail, parking, businesses and consumers, but they understand that transforming transportation in Connecticut cannot be done parochially. The parking director spoke about benefiting ferries and rail by using public transit to end the need for parking. The SEAT bus manager acknowledged that there is no money to be made on rural routes, but pointed out that they are a social good that helps people get education, jobs and medical care.

A first step could be a transportation oversight authority to recommend and carry out streamlined decisionmaking.

Murphy asked for all parties to set priorities and make use of "future think." And he cautioned that some opportunities could pass right by southeastern Connecticut, such as the route for Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, unless people get, and take, the chance to talk them out.

Whether Connecticut can act with vision and optimism is the question now. This November's ballot will ask voters to approve a "lockbox," meaning that all funds for transportation are sacrosanct, and can't be used to balance budgets. That it requires a constitutional amendment shows how strong the temptation not to fund transportation remains.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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