Gov. Malloy’s transportation plan seen as good news for region [New London Day]

January 9, 2015

Article as it appeared in the New London Day

Southeastern Connecticut officials welcomed Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s announcement that he intends to make transportation a priority during the new legislative session, though they expressed some concern about financing such investments.

Malloy called for sweeping improvements to the state’s transportation system in an address to the General Assembly Wednesday. He proposed widening I-95 statewide, fixing ramps on the interstate, expanding rail service and upgrading bus services.

As a component in funding the proposed changes, he said he would push for a “lock box” for transportation funds, which historically have been diverted to other uses.

Tony Sheridan, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, said he was “delighted” to see the governor prioritize transportation. He said smoothing the flow of traffic in southeastern Connecticut would benefit local residents as well as provide a boost to tourism.

“We don’t know how many people decide not to come because they’re concerned about the traffic congestion,” he said, specifically referring to I-95 traffic.

He said he would like to see two transportation projects undertaken in southeastern Connecticut: adding another lane on the portion of I-95 that stretches from Branford to Rhode Island and expanding the Shore Line East train line to Mystic.

State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, said expansion of railway access, whether through Shore Line or another line, to Westerly would be ideal.

Sheridan also suggested further developing the Groton-New London Airport, providing seniors with free bus passes, adding a line of tracks to railways used by Shore Line and Amtrak, and perhaps initiating a study of railways.

SEAT bus service General Manager Michael Carroll said he supported the governor’s proposal to improve access to real-time information about bus service, saying that SEAT is already looking at how to better offer such information. He said that the bus service would be glad to see an increase in operational funds it receives from the state.

SEAT, along with the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments and the state, has recently undertaken a study of the Southeast Area Transit District’s bus routes, ridership, rate structure and facilities.

New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said New London had already benefited from improvements to its transportation hub over the past few years, including improvements to the State Pier and the expansion of Shore Line railway service to New London. He said he hoped such improvements would continue.

But finding the right manner of funding for transportation investments would require further study. Sheridan, Formica and state Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, said they did not wish to see taxes raised to fund improvements to transportation infrastructure.

Formica and McCarty both expressed wariness about tolls, though they did not outright oppose them. Formica said that, were there tolls, he would like to see some kind of exemption for state residents.

Sheridan said he thought tolls would likely be necessary. Sheridan noted that tolls would not only be levied on Connecticut residents but also on truck drivers and out-of-state drivers who use the state’s roadways but don’t currently share the burden of cost for maintenance.

The idea of a “lockdown” on transportation funds pleased region officials, but some expressed skepticism that such a protection of funds could be accomplished.

Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments Chairman William Ballinger, who is also first selectman of Bozrah, said he didn’t know how a policy could be passed to prevent what some have called “raiding” of transportation funds. He said a constitutional amendment might be necessary, but “I don’t know how you make that absolute.”

“What one legislative session does, another can undo,” he said.

He said the governor’s stated intention to emphasize transportation infrastructure was still significant and improvements would benefit the state economy.

“If it doesn’t move, you can’t benefit economically from it,” he said.

He said he would especially like to see Route 11 completed, but said cost could keep that goal distant.

Council Executive Director James Butler agreed that the intended emphasis was laudable, but said he was awaiting more details.

Malloy has stated he will outline first steps for his proposal when he presents the state budget.

“It’s premature for me to have much more of a reaction other than I agree with the governor transportation is a critical issue facing the state,” Butler said.