Lawmakers dedicate transportation fund
Buried amid a far-ranging list of rededicated highways, proposed initiatives to improve the New Haven Line, and other loose ends packed in the transportation bill unanimously passed last week was a single sentence to dedicate fuel taxes and other revenue solely for transportation projects.
State Rep. Gerald Fox, D-Stamford, said the provision to protect the state's Special Transportation Fund from being raided for general government costs is a critical commitment toward tackling billions of needed rail and highway bridge replacement work, expanding rail service and parking along the New Haven Line, and other large-scale needs.
"I think it's an important assurance for people who want to know when they invest in transportation or buy gas that those funds are going toward improving our infrastructure of the future," said Fox, who also serves on the Greneral Assembly's Transportation Committee. "We have so many unmet infrastructure needs that this is an important step."
While support for the measure was bipartisan, state Rep. David Scribner, R-Danbury, said many legislators were disappointed the dedicated fund would not be off limits until July 2015. The budget passed by the Legislature last week takes about $120 million from the transportation fund to offset deficits in other areas of the spending plan.
The use of the funds coincides with a previously scheduled boost to the state's petroleum gross receipts tax from 7 percent to 8.1 percent, further boosting the combined local, state and federal gas taxes to more than 60 cents a gallon, Scribner said.
According to the Tax Foundation, Connecticut ranks fourth in the nation in gas taxes behind New York, California and Hawaii.
"I think that goes to demonstrate that this is not an isolated area of concern and that legislators throughout the state see this as an important area," Scribner said. "While it is too bad that this budget carries on the very type of activity the law seeks to end, there is some satisfaction that we not only got the measure passed, but that it had such broad support statewide."
The budget eliminates $30 million in funding for paving projects for local towns and $20 million for transportation projects normally paid for from the state's General Fund. Metro-North Rail operations will receive $9 million less in subsidy from the state due to rail fare increases set to go into effect as part of a series of seven consecutive rail fare increases.
Last week, Gian Carl Casa, undersecretary of legislative affairs for the Malloy administration, said the budget, which allocates revenues of $1.24 billion in fiscal 2014 and $1.33 billion in fiscal 2015 to the Special Transportation Fund, maintains Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's increase in the proportion of the amount of the state's petroleum gross receipts tax proceeds being dedicated to transportation uses. "The governor is dedicated to strengthening both the General Fund and Special Transportation Fund," Casa said. "He is a strong supporter of transportation investment, as he has shown."
State Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, said that the establishment of a transportation lockbox is long overdue, given the state's ongoing series of rail fare increases through 2018 and a long list of important but costly improvements, like a $300 million project to electrify the Danbury branch line.
"My personal view is that you don't tell people you are charging them money for something and then spend it on something else," Lavielle said. "Telling people they are paying train fares and the highest gas taxes in the country, but we're not going to use it to repair your roads and bridges is a problem too."
Lavielle said she was pleased the passed legislation included language requiring the Department of Transportation complete a report by February on electrifying the Danbury and Waterbury branch lines by 2023, and expanding the parking supply on the New Haven Line for commuters.
"Doing something about improving the Metro-North branch lines is something I've been pushing for because if you fix them, you have a very clear immediate return on investment because we know who the people are who aren't using those trains and would if they were fixed," she said.
Kevin Nursick, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Transportation, said that the agency's budget is tightly constrained, but would complete a plan that could very likely determine that the electrification of the lines is not financially feasible.
DOT has identified about $16 billion worth of unfunded road and bridge repairs and improvements that are needed over the next 20 years.
"We can make a plan but the plan might say that this is not a fundable possibility," Nursick said.
"If you wanted to electrify the Danbury and Waterbury the reality would be there would be very important projects we couldn't do. There are infinite projects the DOT can do and finite resources."