Transportation: What to Fund, and How?
Widen I-95? Expand the state’s mass transit system? Shift freight capacity to rail and ports? Provide tax incentives for telecommuting? There’s no shortage of proposals for resolving Connecticut’s overwhelmed transportation infrastructure.
It’s an increasingly troubling issue for the state, with implications beyond daily commuting indignities, late deliveries, and missed family events,
According to the newly released 2013 Connecticut Transportation Survey, the state’s businesses now rank transportation third–behind economic development and education–in terms of state government spending priorities.
The survey, the first major study of statewide transportation issues, was produced by the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, Stamford Chamber of Commerce, Connecticut Construction Industries Association, and Motor Transportation Association of Connecticut.
“This survey measures the increasingly negative impact of the state’s outdated transportation infrastructure on the state’s residents, businesses, and economic vitality,” said CBIA economist Pete Gioia, speaking today at the 2013 Connecticut Transportation Summit in Stamford.
“While the state has made some important first steps in addressing these challenges, it’s very clear that considerable work remains.”
Michael Riley, president of the Motor Transport Association of Connecticut, said the survey results proved the state’s economic health was dependent on upgrading its transportation system.
“This is a wakeup call to Connecticut’s political leadership,” he said. “It’s time to stop postponing expansions and improvements and get this state moving again.”
Top business concerns
The survey found that overcrowded highways and roads are the top transportation concern for businesses. And attendees at today’s summit, many sharing battle stories about their own journey this morning to lower Fairfield County, agreed.
But how to resolve an issue that has only grown worse over the years?
“This really is a fundamental failure of our political system to make investments in our transportation system,” said State Senate Majority Leader John McKinney (R-Fairfield), speaking on a panel with House Speaker Brendan Sharkey (D-Hamden), Waters Construction Co. president Mario Smith, Anastasio Group CEO Andrew Anastasio, and Stamford Chamber of Commerce president Jack Condlin.
“We’ve failed to make the necessary decisions that we need to make…we must focus on the business and economic issues associated with transportation.”
Those economic issues are many: 42% of companies surveyed say road congestion limits their market; 64% believe better transportation options would increase their ability to attract and maintain a quality workforce; 15% considered relocating their businesses because of regional transportation concerns.
More than half of survey respondents (55%) identified highway improvements and expansion as providing the biggest benefit to the state’s residents and businesses, followed by improving and expanding rail systems (20%).
“What the state has needed for some time now is a comprehensive transportation strategy,” Sharkey told summit attendees.
“Part of the problem–and a reason for a lack of action–is there a lot of individual interests competing with each other. It’s difficult to develop a comprehensive strategy when you’ve got a lot of different people yelling at you.”
‘Roads or mass transit’
McKinney made a similar point, saying “we need to get away from ‘is it roads or is it mass transit?’ The solution is with a combination.”
Sharkey said broad consensus was needed, not only among lawmakers, but all stakeholders, calling on business leaders “to make noise.”
“My challenge to you is to get organized,” he said. “Get organized among yourselves and get your communities organized and build consensus.”
The second question is a thornier one. How to pay for the state’s transportation priorities?
Connecticut’s primary intended funding source is the Special Transportation Fund. The state has one of the highest fuel taxes in the country and much of that revenue goes into the fund.
That fund is a frequent target for lawmakers at state budget time, with money regularly siphoned off to support other state government spending.
“We have to stop taking transportation money and spending it on other things,” McKinney said.
Nearly three-quarters of surveyed businesses support legislation protecting the fund from such raids. About the same number also said recent hikes in the state’s gasoline and diesel taxes had a negative impact on their businesses.
Funding shortfalls at the federal level also threaten transportation investment. Summit keynote speaker Phil Byrd, chairman of the American Trucking Association, warned that unless Congress acts soon, the Federal Highway Trust Fund will have a negative balance by 2015.
“As an industry, we’re willing to pay more in federal fuel taxes,” Byrd said. “But that money must be spent on roads and transportation projects,”
The realities of budget politics made Sharkey somewhat circumspect when discussing protections for the state’s transportation fund. He referenced a special fund created in 1920 to support veterans in trouble that the legislature has never touched.
“There are some places in the state budget that you only touch if you have no political aspirations beyond the next year,” he said.
“You have to make it politically impossible for a politician to touch it [the Special Transportation Fund]. It’s a difficult lift, but that’s probably the only way.”
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