The Connecticut Department of Transportation had a deus ex machina moment on Feb 22. when it reported promising study findings on the Interstate Highway 95 amidst its ongoing drama over a budget sliding into insolvency.
One project that has given the department trouble has been the proposed widening of I-95 to reduce congestion. Instead of the conventional method of widening the entire length of the interstate in both directions, the CTDOT proposed a 6-mile project involving strategic widening in the northbound direction for maximized impact while minimizing expenses. The cost would amount to $400 million — a dramatic decrease from the original budget of $9 billion.
“It was eye-opening to realize we could do something like this,” said Thomas Maziarz, chief of the Bureau of Policy and Planning at the CTDOT, who headed the study. “Historically, people thought widening was a futile effort because of lack in space and cost concerns.”
The plan targets major bottleneck areas and intends to relieve traffic during afternoon rush hours. Congestion during peak period is projected to decrease 35 percent, which translates into 22 minutes saved on the road for commuters traveling from New York City to New Haven. According to Maziarz, the state economy will generate $2.50 for every $1 of public investment in the widening, or $1.2 billion of total revenue to boost the state economy by saving time for individual drivers and encouraging businesses.
Maziarz emphasized the project’s economic return, describing transportation investment as “the basic foundation” on which the economy grows. He said businesses in areas such as Stamford have told him congestion on the I-95 has worsened substantially since the 1980s.
“If you’re running a delivery service and have to go through four hours of traffic every morning and afternoon, that’s critical,” Maziarz said. “That hinders business.”
The elephant in the room, however, is funding. The CTDOT intends the budget to come from federal dollars and “state funds,” but ultimately that will mean the money will come from the State Transportation Fund, which is expected to go insolvent by 2020 because of decreasing tax revenue and fiscal mismanagement throughout the years.
The lack of funding has forced the state to indefinitely suspend $4.3 billion’s worth of construction projects — including the interstate projects. If budgetary constraints are relieved, Maziarz said, widening the I-95 would be a priority for its cost efficiency compared to the returns in traffic relief.
But Jim Cameron, a Hearst Newspapers commentator and 19-year member of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council, described the plans as “a moot point that is going nowhere without money.” He expressed doubt about whether the expansion would even alleviate traffic. Cameron pointed to a precedent in Miami, where an improved highway indirectly deterred people from using public transit, exacerbating congestion.
“The question should be how to manage demand, how to get cars off the road, not investing in more asphalt,” he said. “Now we’ll have congestion problems with four lanes instead of three.”
But opting for public transportation will likely become even more difficult in coming years. The CTDOT announced last month that bus fares will increase, while train frequencies are reduced. The issue comes full circle back to the issue of the Special Transportation Fund; the department is in dire need of money — hence the fare hike — and is having a hard time financing rail service for branches with relatively less demand.
Maziarz conceded that these policies are counterproductive for solving the issue of congestion on I-95 and called for action in the legislative branch to restore revenue streams. Gov. Dannel Malloy has called for highway tolls and higher gas tax as solutions, but those proposals have met a lukewarm reception on both sides of the aisle from state legislators, who are concerned about public sentiment with the upcoming gubernatorial elections.
“Widening the I-95 goes hand in hand with tolling,” said Gregory Stroud, executive director of SECoast, a Connecticut nonprofit that concerns with infrastructure and development. “It’s a sweetener of sorts for the bitter pills that are tolls.”
Stroud argued that the CTDOT should be more transparent in revealing its reports, and he called for the release of the entire study rather than just a summary briefing at a press event. He said that the public should be aware of the trade-off, “what they’re getting and giving up,” so that it can make educated decisions on an issue that could sway Connecticut’s economic health for decades.
Traffic congestion on the I-95 costs 54 million hours of delay on a yearly basis, according to the CTDOT.
Nicole Ahn | firstname.lastname@example.org