Connecticut's lame-duck governor battles logjams in legislature and on I-95

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HARTFORD, Conn. -- Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy invoked the economy in his latest pitch for transportation funding as he confronts two major logjams – on Interstate 95 and in the state legislature.

“We’re getting our ass kicked. And we’re getting our ass kicked because we can’t get from Place A to Place B in Connecticut,” Malloy told reporters last week as he pitched a scaled-down plan to widenI-95, the state’s busiest thoroughfare.

The traffic bottlenecks, notably from New Haven to New York, have shooed away businesses and generated increased economic development in Westchester County, N.Y., and northern New Jersey, the governor said.

According to a report by Malloy and state transportation Commissioner James Redeker, 54 million hours of annual delays on the highway amount to $1.2 billion of lost time per year.

The transportation woes of the tri-state New York region provide a backdrop to Connecticut's predicament. Problems and uncertainties range from subway and commuter rail breakdowns to funding for such critical megaprojects as the Gateway tunnel connecting New Jersey and Manhattan.

"From a business community perspective, traffic congestion is a huge issue," said Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City.

Malloy’s new plan, downsized from a previous version that would have widened all of I-95 from New York to Rhode Island, would widen the highway at three chokepoints: 6.3 northbound miles from Fairfield to Bridgeport; southbound 9.3 miles from Stamford to the New York border; and 11.1 miles northbound from Stamford to Fairfield.

Estimated costs for those projects are $399 million, $659 million and $1.26 billion, respectively, or about $2.3 billion overall.

East of New Haven, summer vacationers flocking to the shorelines create logjams. Suggested short-term and mid-range improvements along that part of the highway would run about $2 billion. Long-range widening, from Branford to New London, will require further study.

Malloy's proposal hinges upon lawmakers stabilizing the state’s Special Transportation Fund, a requisite for going to the bond market. The I-95 widening projects were among the $4.3 billion in work Malloy and Redeker postponed or suspended last month because of long-term failure to replenish the STF.

The $1.5 billion fund accounts for roughly 7% of the state budget.

"These improvements shouldn’t be seen as optional,” said Democrat Malloy, a former Stamford mayor in his eighth and final year as governor.

In one of several mid-cycle adjustments to the biennial budget, the governor has called for statewide electronic tolling beginning in fiscal 2023; a 7-cent-per-gallon increase in the gasoline tax implemented over four years; acceleration of the transfer of the car sales tax by two years; and a new $3-per-tire fee on tire purchases.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce favors increasing the federal gas tax to fund transportation infrastructure.

"That is an indication of how important this area is to the business community, mobility generally," said Wylde. "You don’t get the Chamber of Commerce recommending tax increases often.”

Connecticut's revenue problems have also brought tolling to the table. Connecticut discontinued I-95 tolls in the mid-1980s after a crash at the Stratford tollgate killed seven people.

The federal government would have to approve tolling on Interstate highways.

Even without the tolling debate, Connecticut’s legislature is already sharply divided. The Senate is split 18-18 while Democrats hold an 80-71 advantage in the House of Representatives.

A 2015 report to the state Department of Transportation by engineering firm CDM Smith said the state could net $2.5 billion in annual net revenue after operating costs, in 2014 dollars. Statewide, said the firm, the cost to deploy an all-electronic system could run from $450 million to $650 million.

While no state enacted legislative changes to fuel taxes from 2010 to 2012, almost 30 have altered their method of fuel taxation in some way in the years after, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Some states, said BAML, are studying how fuel efficiency decreases revenues from fuel taxes while simultaneously contributing to overall use of the roads.

“Other states are contemplating an additional tax on hybrid or electric vehicles to compensate states for how the owners of the vehicles contribute less to fuel tax revenues while still driving on the roads,” BAML said.

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