Malloy: Special Transportation Fund in jeopardy

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy cautioned Thursday that the state needs to fix its transportation fund — or major infrastructure projects will be "at risk."

Malloy's office issued a news release that highlighted a report from the state Office of Policy and Management and the state Department of Transportation on the status of the Special Transportation Fund, which is the funding source for transportation projects and the DOT's operating budget.

The report says the fund's balance in the current budget "cannot support the previously planned level of capital investments and service, while also funding normal operations for the Department of Transportation (DOT), including highway maintenance and bus and rail operations."

"If we do not take action to increase revenues in the STF, the Connecticut Department of Transportation would be forced to significantly revise its operating budget and its five-year capital program," the report states. "It would significantly reduce highway, rail and bus services for the public, and reduce the capital program by over $4 billion over the next 5 years."

About $4.3 billion of the state's five-year capital plan — including about $2 billion of the governor's $2.8 billion Let's Go CT Ramp Up plan — would be "at-risk for suspension or deferral," according to the report, in order to help keep the fund solvent.

The widening of Interstate 95 between the Baldwin Bridge and the Gold Star Memorial Bridge and the second phase of the northbound Gold Star Bridge construction project are among the "at-risk" capital projects across the state.

In addition, cuts in the DOT's operating budget "at risk" of occurring include a 15 percent cut in state subsidies to transit districts in fiscal year 2019 and a 50 percent cut in 2021, and a 50 percent reduction to Shore Line East rail service in 2019, which likely will prompt fare increases, according to the report.

“For too long, Connecticut put off the tough choices necessary for making critical investments in our state’s transportation system and growing our economy — and now the bill is coming due,” Malloy said in a statement. “Today we are at a crossroads, and a decision must be made: will we cancel important projects and let our roads and bridges deteriorate, or will we endeavor to face these problems head on and find new ways to support our transportation system."

"My position remains clear: transportation is critical to our economic success and simply cutting our way out of this would be catastrophic to our state," he added. "As we prepare to enter a new year, I will encourage and facilitate continued dialogue with my fellow leaders in state government to ensure that action is taken, and taken soon.”  

The OPM and DOT report lists "negative trends" that the agencies say helped weaken the transportation fund, including the reduction of the gas tax in 1997, falling oil prices at a time when more people are using electric and fuel-efficient cars, the increasing annual debt service and the diversion of funds from the transportation fund in the 2016-17 budget.

Senate Republican President Pro Tempore Len Fasano, R-North Haven, released a statement that said the issue "is a result of bad policies that have been enacted by Governor Malloy and his Democrat colleagues." He said those policies include diverting money from the Special Transportation Fund and building "a 9 mile busway to nowhere."

Legislators representing the region said Thursday that they would work on transportation issues in the next session.

"I think we really need to have a strong focus on transportation infrastructure next session and really try to tackle this problem," said Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Lyme, ranking member on the General Assembly's Transportation Committee.

Carney said debt service, from years past and under past governors and Malloy, has caught up with the state. He said it's important to keep bonding in check and go "line by line" to evaluate each project and ensure funding goes toward priorities, such as highways and major bridges that are reaching the end of their useful life.

He said he considers widening I-95 to be a priority, since there are tragic accidents on the highway. He also said it would be unwise to cut Shore Line East, since many people in the area rely on the service and it keeps people off already congested roads.

Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, a member of the Transportation Committee, said the state needs to figure out the funding stream for the Special Transportation Fund. She said the legislature could revisit the issue of tolls, which many of her constituents would like to see Connecticut implement and every state around Connecticut has.

Osten said the state shouldn't cut back on transportation funding, as it's vital for economic development and the state has infrastructure needs.

"We absolutely need to continue with transportation funding and transportation repairs and not slow down," she said. "We're already going fairly slow."

State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, said there is a need to stop taking from the transportation fund and transferring to the general fund. He said the second step is to implement an infrastructure plan that is fundable.

"Realistically, the Department of Transportation has to do what residents and businesses and families have done for a long time, and that is to prioritize whatever project is going forward until we can stabilize this fiscal cycle," Formica said.

East Lyme First Selectman Mark Nickerson said he's not surprised by the announcement. He said Connecticut needs to strike a balance between investing in the future and finding the money to keep the state from operating in the red.

When the state gets back to work on its transportation program, I-95 should be a high priority, he said.

"While we need to cut back on certain projects, I-95 should remain a priority in this five-mile stretch," he said, referring to the stretch from Exit 71 to the split with Interstate 395, on which a high number of accidents, many of them severe, have occurred. "It’s a death trap, and it's not even a substandard highway, but a failed highway — and the statistics prove it."

Southeast Area Transit District Chairman Ronald McDaniel, also the mayor of Montville, said the cuts to transit districts would impact SEAT.

He said local municipalities wouldn't be able to increase their funding to the transit district to make up for the potential state cuts. SEAT would be forced to seriously consider how the bus district would operate in the future, which would mean some kind of service cuts.

k.drelich@theday.com

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