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Lamont Readies A Transportation Reboot

Traffic congestion on I-95 westbound.

The Trump administration and a global consulting firm are among the resources Gov. Ned Lamont’s chief of staff tapped over the summer in a crash project to devise a transportation infrastructure plan capable of moving Connecticut past the debate over highway tolls. 

Twice in the past month, the governor’s chief of staff, Ryan Drajewicz, has flown to Washington D.C. to meet with federal transportations officials, taking a special interest in the Build America Bureau, the office created three years ago as a clearinghouse for loans, grants and technical assistance on financing infrastructure projects.

“The politics, honestly, I personally didn’t think of it until I walked into the U.S. DOT, and there was this big picture of the president. When you are dealing with subject-matter experts, there is no partisan part to it,” said Drajewicz, a former congressional aide. “Transportation infrastructure is as bipartisan as it gets.”

The issue of infrastructure might be bipartisan, but paying for it certainly isn’t. At least not in Connecticut.

Lamont, a Democratic governor who took office in January, stumbled badly in his first attempt to increase funding for Connecticut’s aging and inadequate transportation infrastructure. He now hopes to coax legislators back to Hartford this fall to consider the product of his administration’s summer labors: “CT 2030,” a work-in-progress focused on projects that can reduce commuting times and spark economic growth.

“What I wanted to achieve is an overall reset, to really step back and think about a comprehensive, multifaceted transportation vision,” Drajewicz said. Gov.

Dannel P. Malloy proposed a 30-year, $100-billion infrastructure plan in 2015, never finding a way to fund it. Drajewicz said he is working on a 10-year window, allowing the administration to set specific goals, then work backwards on the question of financing.

Credit Mark Pazniokas / CT Mirror
CT Mirror
Ryan Drajewicz, the governor’s chief of staff, at a transportation event in April.

“I’ve spent a lot of time granularly dissecting what hasn’t worked and why in this state,” Drajewicz said. “Not just this last legislative session, but the one before, the one before, the one before going back. And what I have found is that people are either too far ahead or they’re not granular yet.”

In an interview last week, Drajewicz spoke broadly about the administration’s desire to make a fresh start on transportation, sharing details of his efforts to network in Washington and elsewhere with infrastructure experts in and outside government. But he declined to share specifics, such as the extent to which tolls still will be in the mix or to outline his 10-year shopping list.

In Washington, he has been briefed at the FAA on airport development in preparation for an eventual push to transform either Tweed New Haven or Sikorsky Memorial into a viable commercial option for air travelers in southwest Connecticut.

At Build for America, he has explored whether it would make sense to seek credit assistance from two programs Connecticut has not used, at least not in recent years: TIFIA, the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, and RRIF, the Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing program.

“So my first conversations with U.S. DOT is who’s gotten this right? Who’s gotten this wrong? And where are they?” Drajewicz said.

Drajewicz’s outreach has been comprehensive, but the road ahead is difficult.

Lamont still faces a wariness about tolls among some legislative leaders in his own party, especially senators intent on holding their majority after sharing power in an evenly divided chamber for two years, and outright opposition to any new transportation revenue from the legislature’s Republican minority.

The GOP’s position is straightforward: Connecticut’s officials cannot be trusted with any new revenue, even dollars earmarked for transportation.

On transportation, the administration spent much of the five-month, 2019 legislative session on the defensive. After campaigning last year on a promise to seek tolls only on trucks as Rhode Island is doing, Lamont proposed in February to toll cars and trucks on the Merritt Parkway and Interstates 84, 91 and 95.

The session ended at midnight June 5 without a vote in either chamber on his plan.

Credit Washington State Dept. of Transportation/flickr creative commons

The governor never succeeded in focusing the debate on what the tolls would buy for commuters and businesses. It was as though a restaurant had greeted diners with a bill without taking anyone’s order — or even enticing them with details about what the kitchen could deliver.

“It devolved down into tolls, right? To toll or not to toll. And that became the debate,” Drajewicz said. “And in my view, it was a travesty to some degree. And I think, you know, we have to own some of that.”

Actually, there is a broad and bipartisan consensus at the State Capitol that the administration owns pretty much all of what happened after Lamont proposed tolls in a 724-word op-ed article dropped on a long holiday weekend. None of it was good.

“The whole debate was about how to pay for something, rather than how to improve your life. If we invest that money in highways, how does that improve commuting time?” said Joe McGee, the vice president of the Business Council of Fairfield County. “The really big issue that has gotten lost in this is how this lack of investment in transportation infrastructure is affecting job growth.

“Twenty years ago, that was a theory. Today, it’s a fact.”

The administration has taken the criticism to heart. Drajewicz and Max Reiss, a television reporter who joined the governor’s office as director of communications in July, now describe possible projects in terms of commuting time. On I-95, they can point to four projects that could take 32 minutes off a 94-minute, rush-hour trip between New Haven and the New York line.

Lyle Wray, the executive director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments, said the state has to make the business case for its 10-year plan, just as CRCOG is preparing to seek proposals for an economic impact study of improved rail service from Hartford to Springfield to Boston.

James Redeker, the DOT commissioner under the Malloy administration, said the state does have a ready example of how transportation infrastructure improvement can touch thousands of motorists on a daily basis: the recently completed widening of a 2.7-mile stretch of I-84 in Waterbury, long a notorious bottleneck.

He wondered the other day during a telephone interview if his old agency had completed a before-and-after analysis of the $300 million project to add a third lane and make other improvements. It turns out DOT has not done an economic impact study, but an analysis of road-sensor data was available.

Average rush-hour speeds jumped from 16 miles per hour to 62 mph eastbound and from 7 mph to 67 mph westbound. Travel times through the corridor fell from 13 minutes to 3 minutes eastbound and 30 minutes to 3 minutes westbound. Accidents fell from 38 a month to 3.

“With approximately 113,000 vehicles per day traveling through this corridor, there is a daily savings of 4,200 hours of travel time in the eastbound direction and daily savings of 5,100 hours of travel time in the westbound direction,” the analysis found.

The challenge to the state is the mismatch between the projected revenues the Special Transportation Fund can expect from fuel taxes and the projects and services that draw on the fund.

The state currently borrows about $800 million per year for infrastructure work, combining that with roughly $750 million in matching federal grants. But the DOT says Connecticut needs to spend at least $2 billion annually to make long-term repairs and strategic improvements.

As originally proposed, tolls could raise about $800 million annually, according to administration estimates.

Republicans countered by suggesting the state simply crowd out other borrowing and focus on transportation. The need for new revenue: Zero.

One problem with this idea is that it would require strict discipline by successive legislatures to forgo borrowing for any number of other needs. And Lamont says the needs eventually will require more revenue for DOT operations and debt service on transportation projects.

Credit Ryan Lindsay / Connecticut Public Radio
Connecticut Public Radio
Gov. Ned Lamont by the I-84 viaduct in Hartford with his budget chief Melissa McCaw and Transportation Commissioner Joseph Giulietti.

Once the regular 2019 session ended on June 5, Drajewicz said the governor summoned him, closed the door and told him to take the summer to recast the administration’s approach to infrastructure. That meant a summer of networking and outreach.

On June 27, Drajewicz and Transportation Commissioner Joseph Giulietti met at the State Capitol with a team of five transportation construction and financing experts from McKinsey & Co. One was Tony Shorris, the former first deputy mayor of New York City and current member of the Regional Plan Association, a group Lamont addressed in April.

Shorris has become a sounding board.

“Tony’s kind of lived some of these battles before in the city of New York and has a strategic sense,” Drajewicz said. You know you might zig there when you’re thinking of zagging, that sort of thing.”

He said he called officials at the U.S. Department of Transportation after Lamont met Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and spoke generally about Connecticut’s need for infrastructure improvements and investments. That led to phone calls with staffers, then Drajewicz’s visit to the DOT headquarters on New Jersey Avenue in Washington on July 31.

Drajewicz returned on Aug. 15, meeting with Build America and FAA officials, the latter to talk about possible expansion at Tweed or Sikorsky. A contingent from Build America is coming to Connecticut for an informational meeting with legislative leaders.

Republicans say Lamont has to overcome decades of skepticism over the state’s ability to use transportation revenue wisely — as well as his own administration’s willingness this year to cancel the planned use of $170 million in sales tax revenues to shore up the Special Transportation Fund over the next two years. The cancellation helped balance the budget.

“How am I to believe ‘We are in such dire need, but let me take $170 million to put it somewhere else,’ ” said House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby. “This is a big-picture trust problem.”

The legislature established the Special Transportation Fund in 1983 after a bridge carrying I-95 across the Mianus River in Greenwich collapsed and expanded it in 1984 to finance a 10-year infrastructure program. The idea was to have a reliable source of money to pay debt service on transportation borrowing by dedicating fuel taxes, certain fees and, eventually, some motor vehicle taxes to the fund.

But when the legislature struggled to balance the budget in 1987, it effectively raided the fund by making some agency operating costs a responsibility of the STF. Currently, the operating costs of the DOT and DMV are paid from the fund, taking pressure off the general fund.

“We’ve got to rebuild trust,” said Rep. Laura Devlin of Fairfield, the ranking House Republican on the legislature’s Transportation Committee. She calls tolls “a spigot to drain money out of people’s pockets.”

Klarides acknowledged that the GOP most likely has contributed to the public mistrust with a road show that reviews that history — and suggests that little has changed.

Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, said lawmakers cannot afford to stand pat on transportation. If the past is upsetting, the immediate future could be worse if there is no agreement on transportation.

“I think people don’t understand the dire financial situation we’ll be in in a few years,” he said. Last week, the Republican governor of Massachusetts and Democratic governor of Rhode Island pledged at a National Governors Association “infrastructure stakeholders summit” in Boston to work on developing express train service between Boston and Providence.

Jonathan Dach, a policy adviser to Lamont, and a contingent of state DOT officials attended the conference. Dach said they were told 33 states have identified new transportation revenue in the past six years.

“We’re not the only state trying to crack this nut,” he said.

Keith M. Phaneuf contributed to this report.

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