Business groups to meet with Malloy on rails, I-95 [Danbury News Times]

January 9, 2015

Article as it appeared in the Danbury News Times

As he’s done many a weekday for a dozen years, Joe McGee boarded a Metro-North train in Fairfield on Thursday and stepped off in Stamford, where he heads economic policy for the Business Council of Fairfield County.

Next week, McGee and other transportation advocates may finally see payoff from years of behind-the-scenes work to get Connecticut to modernize its roads, rails and other systems that move people to and from work — if the finances can be made to work.

In his opening day address Wednesday to the General Assembly, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said the state’s transportation system has “held us back” for decades and threatens to do so going forward if a major mobilization of resources is not poured into upgrades and repairs. Malloy emphasized not just mass transit investments, but also proposed the widening of Interstate 95 and major upgrades to exits to keep traffic moving as commuters and trucks merge on and off the highway.

Malloy’s focus on transportation overshadowed an opening day of the Connecticut General Assembly in which some 140 bills were filed by legislators, addressing everything from big-picture pension reform to preventing large retailers from forcing employees to work on holidays.

“We know that transportation and economic growth are bound together,” Malloy said in prepared remarks. “States that make long-term investments in their infrastructure can have vibrant economies for generations. States that don’t will struggle — it is that simple.”

A bit more complicated is the question of how to find the billions of dollars necessary to move the needle at rush hour — and where to focus those funds if successful. If Interstate 95 and Metro-North represent ongoing headaches for commuters in Stamford and lower Fairfield County, other parts of the state can stake their own claims to clogged conduits, particularly Hartford and New Haven, where the state is working to complete a high-speed commuter rail line that McGee believes will be embraced by commuters in the central part of the state.

“Growth follows transportation,” McGee said. “The interesting place that is going to succeed is Newington, because Newington is the place where the new rail line and the busway cross. If you look at the property records, you are going to be seeing a lot of really smart people buying property around the train station in Newington.”

McGee sees transportation as the biggest issue facing employers in southwestern Connecticut, with the Business Council having provided updated statistics Thursday to a transportation roundtable it convenes regularly. He heads to Hartford Monday to meet with Malloy, alongside Business Council CEO Chris Bruhl and other business and transportation advocates from throughout the state.

Malloy has been collecting information himself the past 18 months via a TransformCT initiative of the state Department of Transportation. He suggested his initial proposals will not be ready until February.

Malloy acknowledged the challenge of finding fresh sources of money for any massive investment in transportation amid continued budget deficits, without mentioning the billions of dollars in future liabilities Connecticut faces in funding pensions and health care plans for retirees.

Not everyone is convinced the governor will succeed in finding the funding it would take.

“Where are the resources going to come from? It’s not going to come from the federal government,” said state Sen. Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich. “We’ve tapped out our credit card. ” I’m surprised that the (debt) ratings agencies haven’t taken a tougher look at Connecticut.”

Frantz said he would oppose any proposal for tolls on the grounds it would increase traffic in Greenwich and other communities through which I-95 passes.

Frantz said he expects transportation to dominate discussion in the Connecticut General Assembly this spring, and fears it could muffle what he sees as other important conversations needed to accelerate the state’s economy. Nothing would provide a bigger immediate boost than a broad-based reduction of income and business taxes here, Frantz said.

On a smaller scale, Frantz plans to introduce legislation that would create an entrepreneurs’ “learners permit,” in his words — essentially a two-year moratorium on income and business taxes for startups. He would also extend a tax credit for companies that add workers, which expired last year, allowing companies to claim a $500 credit monthly for each new employee they hire, more for veterans or those with disabilities.