The money pit
State megaprojects leave scant funds to fix existing infrastructure
Published 1:27 pm, Monday, March 17, 2014
Drive around the state and it's easy to see where transportation dollars are being spent.
In fact, more than $3 billion -- or 94 percent of all highway funds -- is being funneled into one project.
The Pearl Harbor Memorial-Quinnipiac River Bridge at the mouth of New Haven Harbor is slowly taking shape as new links are formed between the busy Interstates 95/91 and Route 34 interchanges. Started in 2001, it's a colossal project that still has at least two years of construction remaining, but will continue to have financial impacts for years to come and influences nearly every transportation funding decision the state makes.
"The Q Bridge is an example of a highway project that has sucked up so much of the available funding in the road budget that it heavily impacts other projects," Steve Higashide, senior planner for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. "The state has plenty of repair needs on its roads and bridges, and should reprioritize more money for repair needs, including for transit."
By some estimates, the state needs nearly $3.6 billion to upgrade and repair the New Haven Line -- a stretch of 75 miles of tracks, bridges and signal systems -- where Metro-North Railroad is experiencing steady ridership growth along with a series of calamities that have pointed out weaknesses in the system. Nearly $2 billion is needed to replace two movable bridges that are now more than 110 years old and are vital to Metro-North and Amtrak's Northeast Corridor.
Without significant federal funding, the state has little capacity to fund such megaprojects.
But even when funding did become available under the federal stimulus program, the state chose new projects to extend transit services elsewhere, such as the New Britain to Hartford busway, dubbed CTFastrak and the New Haven, Hartford, Springfield rail line, rather than use the necessary matching funds for existing infrastructure.
"It's a great concern that we are pursuing new projects that don't necessarily show they will get high usage while not maintaining a currently highly utilized transportation corridor," said state Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton. "I-95 is now congested 24 hours a day and we have a rail system that is falling apart. There is no doubt the way the state and federal government prioritize transportation is key."
Boucher, a ranking minority member of the legislature's Transportation Committee, who has pressed for the electrification of the Danbury branch line said that regional cooperation on projects like the New Haven, Hartford, Springfield line tend to rely on the premise that connection between regions will generate jobs and long-term economic benefits.
The New Haven, Hartford, Springfield line is being built using $191 million in Federal Transit Administration funding awarded four years ago. Scheduled to go into service in 2015, the project is seen by supporters as a cornerstone of a plan to revive the economic fortunes of central Connecticut. The DOT estimates it will reduce the number of cars on state roads by 4,000 a day.
The state bonded another $113.4 million in state matching funds for the CTFastrak project -- a 9.4-mile busway -- which has received $459.4 million in federal funds including $266.4 million awarded under a FTA program for modernizing "fixed guideway," systems scheduled to open in February 2015.
The state's ability to obtain federal funding for those projects through state matches is an important investment in the economic future of the central region of the state, said Andrew Doba, spokesman for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
While Republicans like Boucher have criticized the projects, Doba said the state's decision to accept the federal funds brought in hundreds of millions in hard to come by transit money that otherwise would have gone elsewhere.
"When you are looking at investing at transportation across the state you have to look at new lines and getting people in and out of our larger cities and towns," Doba said. "Whether it is CTFastrak, the New Haven to Springfield, or even improvements on the New Haven Line we are investing more money in transit now than at any time in the state's history."
Like many other states, Connecticut faces fraught and often controversial choices putting large-scale transportation projects in order of significance and urgency on the New Haven Line as well as major stretches of highway that need to be rebuilt, such as a $1 billion to $2 billion rehabilitation of the I-84 viaduct in Hartford and $2 billion to $3 billion for the I-84/Mixmaster project in Waterbury.
Among the unfunded projects listed in the state's five-year capital plan is $1.8 billion to replace two century-old swing bridges over the Mianus and Housatonic rivers on the New Haven Line and unspecified costs of awaited improvements to the New Canaan, Danbury, and Waterbury branches.
A report this year by the Regional Plan Association found that the New Haven Line needs $3.6 billion in upgrades to remedy the symptoms of aging infrastructure to avoid service disruptions, and called for the immediate replacement of the swing bridges.
"The New Haven Line is taking the brunt of traffic like no other corridor and all we're doing is keeping it running," said Amanda Kennedy, Connecticut director for the RPA. "While there have been investments in the line we don't want to lower expectations and not have the foundation to build a modern rail line."
One of those unfunded projects would electrify the 24.9-mile line between Danbury and South Norwalk at a cost of $300 million.
Lawmakers and transit advocates said that while not alone among states with an ever growing list of aging infrastructure, Connecticut faces a philosophical choice between highway expansion and long known maintenance needs.
State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, said because of the New Haven Line's status as the largest segment on the nation's second-busiest rail line and congestion on I-95 justify a renewed look at whether they are being given adequate priority.
"The new stuff always has more sizzle which is great," Steinberg said. "But we have the most heavily used corridor in southwestern Connecticut and frankly I'm not sure we have an effective plan for dealing with what our issues are."
Floyd Lapp, executive director for the South Western Regional Planning Agency said that for years the agency has argued the New Haven Line's economic position as the nation's second-busiest rail line justifies a bigger share of transportation dollars for long discussed capacity expansions to meet rising demand in coming decades.
This year the agency is asking legislators to prioritize improvements on the 7.9-mile New Canaan branch line, including construction of a passing siding in Springdale to allow more trains to run on the line, and extending platforms at its New Canaan, Springdale and Talmadge Hill stations to reduce boarding times.
The events of 2013, including the derailment in Bridgeport and the plight of commuters dealing with pervasive and extended delays on a daily basis, raises basic questions about using bonding capacity for the busway and New Haven to Springfield line when safety on the New Haven Line has become an issue, Lapp said.
"More than ever given the various calamities of the New Haven railroad since last spring, funding is desperately needed in this part of Connecticut rather than continuing to tilt the resources towards the capitol district," Lapp said.
In recent years, Connecticut's ability to get the federal funding needed to embark on larger projects has been made more challenging by policy changes in Map 21, the two-year surface transportation reauthorization act that made steep cuts in the type of discretionary funds that flowed more freely to fix the Q Bridge and create the New Haven to Springfield line, said Jim Redeker, commissioner of the state Department of Transportation.
Redeker said the unfunded initiatives for the New Haven Line or to repair hundreds of bridges throughout the state may not move forward at the clip he'd like, they also don't represent work that must be done within a given time frame in order to maintain safety and reliability.
"The state of Connecticut has significant and large maintenance obligations but that doesn't mean we're in a bad place somehow or we are deferring things we should have done years ago," Redeker said. "When the Q Bridge is done and Moses Wheeler Bridge (between Milford and Stratford) we'll move up to Hartford and take care of the viaduct. We move on the ones that are most critical first."
Jim Cameron, founder of the Commuter Action Group and a long time rail advocate said he doesn't blame underinvestment in Metro-North infrastructure on the state's recent transportation funding decisions.
"I don't think the condition of Metro-North is what it is today because money was taken from those projects and put into the busway for instance," Cameron said. "I think those are great projects and I think they will benefit the entire state and should be done."