Lawmakers seek to wall off transit funding
Lawmakers seek to keep state revenues intended to support transportation from being moved
Lawmakers are moving to protect fuel tax and other revenues dedicated to paying for transportation projects from being used to close the state's deficit in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's proposed budget.
The Legislature's transportation committee voted unanimously this month to place in a lockbox the state's Special Transportation Fund, which is used for road and transit projects.
The committee advanced a joint resolution calling for a constitutional amendment to further block using the funds to cover general government expenses. Over the past decade, the funds have often been used to offset deficits in the General Fund.
State Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, said the inability of legislators to refrain from using the fund to cover other costs -- as the state faces a daunting list of road, bridge and transit projects -- erodes the public's faith in pledges to repair infrastructure.
Lavielle said the maneuver has been conspicuous in the past two years, when rail and bus operating subsidies were trimmed in budget discussions as fare increases took effect.
"Taking money that is supposed to be used for transportation and using it to balance the budget isn't right," Lavielle said. "The Special Transportation Fund has always been considered a sort of spare tire, or a reservoir that is bottomless but it's not. We need to pay for transportation."
In the fiscal year beginning in July, Malloy has allocated $1.26 billion to the fund, but proposes a $75 million transfer from the transportation fund to the balance the state's budget, according to Gian-Carl Casa, undersecretary of legislative affairs for the Malloy administration.
The budget also eliminates $30 million in funding for paving projects for local towns and $20 million for a Pay as You Go 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 series of seven consecutive rail fare increases.
State Sen. David Scribner, R-Brookfield, who sponsored House Bill 6039, said the importance of blocking the appropriation of the fund for general government is heightened by the uncertain status of the federal commitment to maintain the roughly $500 million a year it has provided the state for maintenance and highway and rail upgrades.
"If we were prohibited from using the state transportation fund for other purposes we wouldn't be in nearly as precarious a position to pay for our bridge repairs and rails," Scribner said. "That is really the impetus behind it."
The state DOT has identified about $16 billion in unfunded road and bridge repairs and improvements that will be needed over the next 20 years, including $7.5 billion during the next decade.
Casa said the budget revisions and transfer of Special Transportation Funds are required to balance the budget, and the budget continues Malloy's commitment to put the state's Petroleum Gross Receipts Tax into the transportation fund.
The state's projected budget deficit for the 2014 fiscal year is expected to be $1.1 billion, according to the non-partisan Office of Fiscal Analysis.
In the second year of the budget and thereafter, the special transportation fund is expected to receive substantial transfers from the General Fund, Casa said.
Casa said it was too early in budget discussions to tell if Malloy would support a legal restriction on how transportation funds were used this year.
In discussing the prospect of reinstituting tolls on state highways during his 2010 campaign, Malloy said a legal prohibition against transportation fund dollars on other government operating expenses was probably necessary to gain the public's agreement to paying road fees.
State Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, a member of the General Assembly's transportation committee, said he believes enacting restrictions to keep transportation funds from being diverted is probably necessary to remedy a long-standing under-investment in maintaining and improving infrastructure.
Leone said even with the state's financial difficulty, budget discussions could lead to restoration funds for transportation and cuts elsewhere to make up the difference.
"As we look to find revenues for transportation we should not divert the funds we are collecting to support other uses," Leone said. "This sends a message that the money should remain in transportation-oriented projects."
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