A number of studies released this year, including reports by CNBC and the national transportation research group TRIP, point up serious deficiencies in Connecticut’s transportation system and underscore the need to invest in infrastructure improvements.

2013transConnecticut’s Department of Transportation has launched a strategic planning approach to its policies, programs, and projects aimed at paving the way for a more competitive economy and sustainable future. And progress has been made toward enhancing public transit, improving the I-95 corridor, restoring or replacing bridges, upgrading rail systems and parking facilities, and expanding Bradley International Airport.

Considering the measurable—and increasingly negative—impact the state’s outdated transportation infrastructure has had on businesses, residents, and economic vitality, these are important first steps; however, considerable work remains to be done.

In the face of limited resources, which transportation projects take priority, and who pays for them?

The Connecticut Business & Industry Association, together with the Stamford Chamber of Commerce, Connecticut Construction Industries Association, and Motor Transport Association of Connecticut, posed these questions to business leaders throughout the state in the first major survey focusing on Connecticut’s transportation issues.

The 2013 Connecticut Transportation Survey, made possible with the generous support and sponsorship of UIL Holdings Corp., was emailed to top executives throughout Connecticut in late September and early October 2013, during the major service disruption to Metro-North’s railway system.

(Not surprisingly, one in five survey respondents noted that in terms of transportation projects, expanding our rail systems would provide the greatest benefit to the state and its businesses, second only to expanding highway capacity.)

Out of 6,000 business leaders surveyed, we received responses from 651 individuals, for a response rate of 10.9% and a margin of error of +/-3.92 %.

Key Findings

  • The number-one transportation concern for Connecticut business leaders is road congestion (45% of survey respondents), followed by deteriorating roads/bridge conditions (28%).
  • 2013trans1When asked what single transportation project would provide the greatest benefit to Connecticut residents and businesses, 55% of businesses identified highway improvements and expansion.
  • Businesses overwhelmingly want to see operational lanes added to I-95 (88% of respondents).
  • Adverse impacts of Connecticut’s congested roadways on businesses include hindering their ability to meet with customers (63% of respondents) and causing delivery logjams (48%). Forty-two percent of respondents say their market or territory is limited by transportation issues.
  • Nearly three-quarters of businesses surveyed (74%) would support legislation prohibiting the use of Connecticut’s Special Transportation Fund to cover General Fund shortfalls.
  • Connecticut commuters’ high use of single-occupant vehicles can best be reduced, business leaders say, through tax incentives for car/vanpooling (27% of respondents), expansion of rail and bus options (22%), expanding train station parking (10%), and better transit to and from train stations (9%). Fifteen percent of Connecticut businesses surveyed have considered relocating because of regional transportation concerns.
  • 2013trans2Respondents are split down the middle on preserving the Merritt Parkway as a historic roadway (48%) or upgrading it to increase capacity (50%). Of those who favor increased capacity, more than one in 10 would like to see the parkway upgraded to handle commercial traffic.
  • For business leaders, transportation ranks in the top three—behind economic development and education—in terms of state spending priorities and businesses’ willingness to pay for them. Only 14% of respondents put transportation below the midpoint (on a scale of 1 to 5) in terms of their willingness to pay for it.

How Important Is Transportation?

2013trans4Businesses need to move goods and services with the speed and efficiency that allows them to compete in a global economy.

Well-maintained roads, safe bridges, and highways with good peak-hour volume-to-capacity ratios not only encourage economic development but also benefit workers, enhance a state’s quality of life, attract new businesses, and help create and sustain tens of thousands of construction-related jobs as well as jobs for planners, designers, and materials suppliers.

Indeed, 78% of executives surveyed said that Connecticut’s transportation system is somewhat or very important to their company’s ability to move goods and services. In addition:

  • 57% are somewhat or very dependent on passenger transportation for their business
  • 64% say that better mobility and transportation options would enhance their ability to attract and maintain a quality workforce
  • 54% say that customers consider access and convenience when deciding whether to do business with them
  • 29% chose their business site with transportation issues in mind

2013trans5For those businesses that rely on freight transportation, the vast majority of cargo (87%) is handled by truck, as opposed to air transport (8%), ship transport (3%), or rail (2%).

Eight2013trans6y percent of respondents rate the quality and dependability of freight transportation as good to
excellent; however, only 6% believe roadway capacity has kept pace with truck traffic (predicted to double in volume by 2020, over 1998 levels).

More than half of Connecticut businesses surveyed (56%) favor having more rest areas for truckers.

Existing Challenges and Costs

Texas A&M Transportation Institute analyzes trends in traffic congestion and their associated costs. The Institute’s 2012 Urban Mobility Report finds that congestion wastes 5.5 billion hours of U.S. commuters’ time and 2.9 billion gallons of fuel.

Since 1983, the amount of time lost waiting in traffic surged from 16 to 38 hours annually per driver, and the related cost per commuter went from $342 to $818. The total cost of congestion nationwide is $121 billion, of which an estimated $27 billion is wasted time and diesel fuel from trucks moving goods.

2013trans7When asked about their primary transportation concern, 45% of Connecticut business leaders cited traffic/road congestion, and 28% cited deteriorating road/bridge conditions. Other key concerns were Connecticut’s lack of alternative transportation (11%) and high or rising transportation costs (6%).

Half of our survey respondents say congestion plays a role in planning work schedules for their businesses, and 42% acknowledge that their market is limited by congestion and travel delays.

2013trans8Other impacts include delaying or preventing meetings with customers (63%), holding up delivery times (48%), inhibiting access to customers (41%) or customers’ access to their business (37%), and disrupting logistics (36%).

In open-ended responses, respondents explained the myriad ways in which road congestion alters the way they do business or impacts their bottom line.

Among their comments:

  • We expanded our clients’ expectations for what ‘on-time’ means
  • Delays affect production schedules
  • Our product requires a lot of outside processes at other companies in Connecticut. Our deliveries and pickups must be planned around traffic.
  • Reduces number of clients to be seen
  • We provide on-site service for office equipment and network services. Time is of the essence.
  • It impedes my visits to my warehouse and customers
  • Utilizing the option to work from home
  • Difficulty planning/conducting meetings
  • Increases costs due to lost time
  • Clients often reschedule or won’t come
  • Lose a huge amount of working time just trying to get to meetings in the area
  • Arriving on time at a worksite is impossible for our contractors
  • Some employees work a flexible schedule as a result.
  • Affects arrival of parts
  • Schedule our fleet away from Fairfield County during peak hours
  • Hard to find staff
  • Alters delivery schedules
  • Delays deliveries to job sites
  • Travel delays cost us $1 million-plus a year

Eighty-three percent of businesses say they absorb these ancillary costs rather than pass them on to customers. One in four also report paying a premium to their employees because of travel expenses.

2013trans10Adding to the problem in Connecticut are long commutes and driving preferences. Sixty percent of top executives surveyed and 63% of their non-management employees travel at least 10 miles each way to work—frequently 20 miles or more.

The vast majority of respondents (92%) report that their employees start work between 6:01 a.m. and noon, and most report that this window of time coincides with when they do most of their shipping and receiving—resulting in peak hours with a very high volume-to-road-capacity ratio.

Much of the state’s workforce is scattered in areas with limited rail service or other mass transit options, and despite a decline in driving over the last five years, automobiles are still the preferred mode of transportation here.2013trans9

The employers we surveyed reported that 91% of their workers drive to work. Only 3% car/vanpool, 4% walk, bike, or telecommute, and 2% take the train or use other public transit.

Eighty-two percent of businesses surveyed are not satisfied with the availability of parking at Connecticut train stations.

Solutions

Solving Connecticut’s transportation problems means addressing several needs: repairing and maintaining infrastructure, expanding highway capacity, increasing transportation choices, and creating a well-connected transportation system.

Historically, federal dollars have been the major source of funding for transportation system upgrades. Congress, however, intends to reduce (or at least flat-fund) federal transportation aid to states. Funding could be cut by as much as $603 million in 2014.

Like many other states, Connecticut faces a serious transportation funding shortfall. Our bridges, highways, rail lines, and port facilities require extensive restoration and enhancement at the same time revenues from the federal gas tax are falling.

How do we reconcile the gap between projected revenues and infrastructure improvement needs? Which strategic transportation investments should take priority?

2013trans11By and large, business leaders desire greater road capacity.

Expanding highway capacity was identified as the single most beneficial transportation project for Connecticut’s residents and businesses by more than 55% of executives surveyed.

Expanding commuter rail systems was a distant second (17%), followed by replacement or repair of bridges (9%) and increasing the number of direct flights from Bradley International Airport (4%).

A very small minority of businesses (1%) consider busways to be the most impactful project. Many, on the other hand, believe these are speculative investments that take away from higher-priority maintenance and upgrades to high-usage areas of transportation.

Overwhelmingly, businesses want to see operational lanes added to I-95 (88% of respondents).

How Do We Get There? Funding Issues

When business leaders were asked about areas of state spending “in terms of your willingness to pay for them,” transportation ranked in the top three (23% of respondents), behind economic development (37%) and education (36%). Only 14% of respondents put transportation below the midpoint, on a scale of 1 to 5, in terms of their willingness to pay for it.

Connecticut’s 2014–2015 biennial budget includes $2.6 billion in operating funds and $1.3 billion in bonding approved in the Special Transportation Fund. (The STF was established after the collapse of the Mianus River Bridge in 1983, in response to concerns about adequate transportation funding. Money is collected from the petroleum products gross receipts tax and the gas tax charged to consumers at the pump. This latter tax, which was increased this year, had a negative impact on 72% of Connecticut businesses surveyed.)

Though the state has collected over $2.6 billion from these taxes since 2005, and while STF funds are set aside, ostensibly, to maintain and repair the state’s bridges, only about half of that money went to its intended use.

The rest was raided to plug holes in the budget and pay for non-transportation projects. Considering that DOT estimates at least $12.5 billion is needed to pay for what it deems “unfundable highway and bridge projects,” diverting transportation funds to cover other shortfalls in the General Fund is a serious concern.

Transportation funding is simply not the relatively big piece of the pie that it was 20 or 30 years ago. For the biennium, the STF is only about 3% of the operating budget and no more than 20% of the capital authorization.

In addition, within Connecticut’s General Assembly there is disagreement about whether state and federal funds should be directed to ‘Fix It First’ projects (repairs to existing interstates, overpasses, and bridges) or used partly to fund road expansions.

A new law that goes into effect in 2015 will prevent transportation dollars from being appropriated to other projects. Nearly three-quarters (74%) of businesses surveyed support legislation prohibiting the use of STF money to cover General Fund shortfalls; 15% are unsure about the issue.

Even after the new law takes effect and the fund is preserved, however, there are other concerns. The number of bridges in need of repair is growing at a rate that will render the state’s gas and petroleum products gross receipts taxes insufficient to cover the costs.

Furthermore, tax revenue for transportation maintenance and repairs is expected to plummet with the introduction of new federal mileage standards that push automakers to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles.

The reinstitution of tolls on state roads also was the subject of considerable debate in the General Assembly. Prior surveys showed substantial business support for tolls coupled with dedicated funding for transportation, but that support has waned to some extent.

Today, fewer than a third (32%) of businesses surveyed favor tolls on Connecticut’s major highways; 36% would approve only if funds were strictly applied to transportation needs.

Conclusion

In 1999 Michael Gallis, one of the nation’s leading authorities on large-scale regional development strategies, produced a report for the Connecticut Institute for the 21st Century. In it, he warned that without an adequate transportation infrastructure and a strategic policy linking its different transit assets, Connecticut would become an economic cul-de-sac.

Fourteen years later, we have yet to develop a regional strategy, and Gallis’s advice is more relevant than ever.

In an effort to boost Connecticut’s economic competitiveness and growth potential, Governor Malloy earlier this year launched an 18-month strategic initiative called TransformCT, aimed at developing a blueprint for a world-class transportation system.

To that end, the state Department of Transportation has solicited input from residents and businesses through a series of public meetings, focus groups, and surveys. The DOT will consider public input in shaping that plan.

Results of our 2013 Connecticut Transportation Survey also will be shared with elected officials and government agencies to ensure that business perspectives and priorities are integral to the plan; that appropriate weight is given to capital improvements with the greatest potential to advance economic development; and that sustainable sources of funding are identified, leveraged, and preserved.

Unless the state better manages its budget and improves its economic competitiveness, however, finding and maintaining the appropriate funding for any new ideas that TransformCT identifies will be challenging.