Transportation, an issue that has often been overshadowed by others such as the economy and education in the gubernatorial campaign, got its moment in the sun Monday morning when Gov. Dannel Malloy and Republican challenger Tom Foley fielded questions on everything from train station parking lots to congestion on I-95.
The forum, hosted by the state transportation and environmental groups at the Best Western Plus in North Haven, gave each candidate the chance to speak for 15 minutes on their agenda for Connecticut’s roads, buses and trains, plus 15 minutes to answer questions from audience members. Though they traded accusations of ineptitude, Foley and Malloy agreed on one thing: Connecticut desperately needs transportation improvements.
“We have got to be able to move goods and people more expeditiously through our state,” Malloy said. “Highways are not supposed to be parking lots.”
Foley gave the first speech of the event, claiming that his experience in the business world would help him determine where to invest transportation dollars for the greatest benefit. He said his top priority as governor would be to reduce taxes and flat-line spending. After getting the budget under control, he said, he would find money for transportation projects.
He criticized Malloy for eliminating the state’s Transportation Strategy Board, a group of business leaders, commissioners of state agencies and legislative appointees, back in 2011. The group had crafted transportation improvements since 2001, but under Malloy, responsibility for planning was shifted back to the Department of Transportation.
Foley said his transportation policies would recognize the reality that many people rely on their cars. He said that any policy attempting to push people out of their cars and onto mass transit is not going to work.
To address congestion on I-95, he said he would defer to the expertise of advisers.
“I’m not a traffic expert, but I am an expert on what it feels like to be stuck in traffic,” Foley said. “There are probably people in this crowd who know a lot more than what I know. We’ll find a right answer and the way to get it resolved. “
Malloy delivered a strong defense of his record on transportation, declaring that he “could not be more committed” to the issue.
Addressing concerns about safety shortcomings and frequent delays on the Metro-North line, Malloy said he wants to make the commuter train run more like a subway, with fast and regular service.
Norman Garrick, an associate professor of transportation engineering at the University of Connecticut School of Engineering, said the major problem facing the Metro-North line is insufficient funding for maintenance.
Though Malloy has spent more on transportation than his two predecessors, Republicans John Rowland and Jodie Rell, Garrick believes Malloy lacks an overarching strategic vision.
“If I would give him a grade I would give him a C-minus,” Garrick said.
Garrick said Foley’s position that the state should not aim to dissuade people from driving is “backwards.”
Don Shubert, the president of the Connecticut Construction Industries Association and the emcee of the forum, said that he was pleased with both candidates’ performances in an interview after the event.
“Both candidates gave an indication that transportation is something that they just can’t ignore, that they’re going to have to deal with if they are the governor for the next term,” Shubert said.
Despite the importance of transportation to the state’s overall economic performance, most voters do not consider it a top issue, according to Doug Schwartz, director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. Responding to an open-ended question in March 2011, less than one percent of voters named transportation as the most important issue facing Connecticut, Schwartz said.
Joe Visconti did not attend the debate because it was organized before he qualified to appear on the ballot.