Transport board looks at rising costs

Amid a period of rapid expansion and rising costs, the Connecticut Transportation Strategy Board — chaired by Yale’s vice president for New Haven and state affairs, Bruce Alexander — gathered Wednesday at the Greenberg Conference Center on Prospect Street to plot the future of Connecticut transit.

At the two-hour meeting, the bipartisan committee — composed of representatives from state government, regional transport districts and the private sector — reviewed long-term trends in state transportation usage, ongoing and potential transportation projects and the fiscal stability of the Special Transportation Fund, which pays for the operation and improvement of the state’s buses, rail lines and highways.

Two major projects under discussion were the construction of the new Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge, which carries I-95 over the Quinnipiac River, and the New Haven Rail Yard, which is being currently being expanded. But while both those projects are underway and funded, the state has billions of dollars in unfunded maintenance projects that have to be undertaken in the coming years, said State Transportation Commissioner Joseph Marie.

The state needs to prioritize maintenance over expansion, he said. “Otherwise, it’s like building an expansion on your house while the roof is caving in.”

Keeping Connecticut’s transportation system in a state of good repair is also of utmost importance to the board because it makes the state more competitive when it applies for federal funding for new projects, Marie said. But the advisory board still has to figure out what exactly “good repair” means and how to pay for the required maintenance.

Philip Smith, undersecretary in the Office of Policy and Management’s Office of Transportation Policy, said declining state spending caps due to the economic crisis will limit the amount the state can spend on transportation.

All the while, costs are expected to rise as payments need to be made on major capital improvements already underway, he said.

One answer to the funding problem might be pursuing regional funding solutions to skirt the state spending cap, said Lyle Wray, executive director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments, a regional organization dealing with transit and economic development issues in the Hartford area. He suggested that the state allow regions to raise revenue from small sales taxes to fund projects in their own districts.

“It’s much easier for taxpayers to get behind a project if they directly see the results,” he said.

The board is required to prepare a report for the General Assembly on the way forward for Connecticut transit. Alexander said there is much to be studied and that he hoped to have it completed by the end of the summer — before the fall election cycle swings into gear.

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