In recent months, state legislators have bemoaned the lack of transportation funding in Connecticut. And even though the new federal budget may offer a windfall potentially worth millions of dollars for Connecticut transportation, experts and state officials remain at a loss about its implications.

On March 21, Congress passed a spending bill that will fund the federal government until September and that boosts transportation appropriations by $10 billion above the 2017 level. The funding is spread across areas such as the Northeast’s rail system, highway renovations and grants that fund local transportation projects.

“We need to compete as aggressively as possible,” said Donald Shubert, president of the Connecticut Construction Industries Association. “Connecticut should do its part by maximizing every available federal opportunity, but instead we’re floundering.”

If states are not prepared to maximize those opportunities, Shubert said, additional funding is rendered meaningless, because it comes with strings attached. For one, states have to compete for the local  Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grants. The most recent example of an in-state TIGER grant was the $20 million that the federal government disbursed to New Haven in 2016 to cover a portion of the Downtown Crossing Project.

According to Connecticut Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker, Connecticut plans on applying for $45 million in TIGER grants during this fiscal year. But Shubert questioned the state’s ability to help towns and regional councils apply for these grants. The state lacks rigorous programs and talented human resources to apply for grants, he said, which put the state at a disadvantage compared to other states.

Redeker acknowledged that securing TIGER grants can be challenging. But he said he does “not see any particular problem” since previous state administrations have historically been successful at putting together competitive proposals. The current department plans to continue to collaborate with municipalities to help meet their goals, he said.

Given Connecticut’s budgetary problems, another concern is that the funding will go only to states that are able to match federal dollars with state money. Like previous budgets, the latest spending bill calls for states to cover 20 percent of infrastructure costs — though the Trump administration previously proposed that states cover 80 percent.

Still, Redecker maintains, “So far, the state has never given up on a federal dollar.”

But it remains to be seen whether that record will continue, because Connecticut’s Special Transportation Fund, which finances state’s transportation projects, is in serious financial trouble. This has undermined the state’s efforts to issue bonds, which are needed to match federal funds, according to Judd Everhart, spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Transportation.

Even if the state manages to procure these newly available funds, state officials are uncertain whether Connecticut’s transportation problems will be resolved. In light of the Special Transportation Fund’s deficit, Gov. Dannel Malloy has proposed revenue-generating policies such as highway tolls and a higher gas tax. To salvage the Special Transportation Fund, the state also plans to increase rail and bus fares, while the frequency of transportation services will be reduced. The state has put on hold a total of $4.3 billion in transportation projects until budget issues are resolved.

“Every day that we’re not spending double of what we currently spend, our transportation is constantly falling behind,” Shubert said. “We’re not even keeping our head above the water.”

State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, who chairs Connecticut’s Transportation Committee, said she was more optimistic about the impact of federal funding. She said an influx of money would diminish the need for highway tolls and improve rail quality.

Regardless of what happens this fiscal year, Department of Transportation officials and pundits alike agree that Connecticut should react promptly to federal policy changes. Everhart emphasized the unpredictability of federal funding, saying it is “extremely difficult” to plan for new transportation projects given the unstable budgeting process in Washington.

In 2017, Connecticut received $703.7 million in federal transportation funding.

Nicole Ahn | sebin.ahn@yale.edu