Connecticut Seeks Transit Improvements, but Funding Proposals Fall Short

It's hard to see a pattern in the swirl of bills under consideration at Connecticut's Capitol. Legislators are rushing to get placeholder bills in before deadline while assessing the governor's budget proposal, which cuts $1.8 billion in spending over the next two years to deal with the budget deficit. Many bills will die, merge, or transform over the next few weeks as details are worked out.

But it's clear that legislative work will once again address two related issues: improving the transportation system, and finding a way to pay for it. Unfortunately, these efforts are still for the most part disconnected from one another, with the project wishlist far outstripping available funds.

Here is what the legislature is considering:

Many proposed bills are dreaming big about the potential of improvements to the transit system. Several bills require the Department of Transportation to electrify, expand or otherwise improve service along the Metro-North branch lines to Danbury and Waterbury. Currently trains on these lines run only every two to three hours; a frequency too low to support any kind of related economic development near stations. But improvements to both lines already have been studied by state officials. What's needed now are practical solutions to funding the work.

Toward this end, the legislature is once again asking the Department of Transportation to study revenue options for transportation, including re-establishing tolling or implementing congestion pricing. The legislature also recently held an informational hearing on revenue options. (For the record, RPA has testified in support of congestion pricing, which prevents congestion on roadways while raising funds and encouraging the use of transit).

It will take real leadership from both the governor and the legislature to turn these proposals into real programs. Constituents are still concerned that additional revenue slated for transportation will be raided to fill budget gaps elsewhere. Two bills have been introduced that would restrict the revenue of any future increases in transit fares for use only for operating or improving the transit system. There are also bills that ask the Department of Transportation to study the supply of parking at rail stations (again) and to add New Haven-Springfield rail riders to the state's Commuter Council.

As far as improving travel and conditions for those on foot or bike, the "vulnerable user" bill that died in last session's 11th hour will be up for consideration once again. The original version required that drivers who seriously injure or kill pedestrians, cyclists or highway workers attend driving safety classes and community service. Unfortunately it's now at risk of being watered down to only require payment of a fine. The legislature is showing some creativity on how to fund sidewalk improvements, with one bill that will allow towns to pool developer contributions to build sidewalks in key locations instead of piecemeal

While hungry for better transportation, cities, towns and other localities continue to look for more revenue options for a range of needs. Hamden Democrat Brendan Sharkey has taken over as House speaker, and with his leadership should come a continued focus on reducing municipalities' reliance on property taxes, as well regionalizing local services for efficiency and better outcomes. Sharkey comes with a background in planning and urban development. Since he joined the legislature in 2000, he has served as House majority leader and chair of the Planning & Development Committee. He led the smart growth working group back in 2009 that got the ball rolling on these issues. So far, bills have proposed that municipalities be allowed to raise sales, hotel or restaurant taxes or even convert to a land-value taxation system to encourage redevelopment. Unfortunately, Gov. Dan Malloy's proposed phase-out of car taxes will make towns even more dependent on property taxes for income.

It's a different story in Massachusetts, where Gov. Deval Patrick has recently proposed a massive statewide transportation investment plan, committing all sales tax revenues to transportation and other infrastructure while raising income tax by 1% for education needs. The resulting $1 billion per year would allow the state to proceed on rail expansions between Boston, Cape Cod and western Massachusetts, develop a second rail link between western Massachusetts and New York City, rebuild aging highway interchanges and expand Boston's South Station. Whatever the final verdict on Patrick's income tax proposal, he has put together a serious proposal to make progress on modernizing their transportation system. That's more than can be said right now for Connecticut.