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July 15, 2007

Reforming the Connecticut DOT

Once again, Governor Rell has taken a heavy, hands-on approach to running state government, big-footing her new commissioner by ordering a top-to-bottom reform of the trouble-child of state government, the Connecticut Department of Transportation. Good for her.

It wasn’t enough that she once publicly spanked the former Commissioner, Stephen Korta, for his agency’s messy handling of the used-Virginia commuter-rail car debacle. Or that she was embarrassed by the recent scandal over the $60 million I-84 drainage system. Or that we were all surprised that CDOT had secretly decided it could cut back on bridge inspections, ignoring the lessons of the Mianus River Bridge disaster 20+ years ago.

(For a fascinating, yet depressing, history of the CDOT, click here for a recent commentary in the Hartford Courant.)

Now the Governor has created a panel to completely reorganize CDOT. And they have ‘til December 1st to issue their recommendations. Headed by Pitney Bowes Chairman Michael Critelli, the panel is a strange mix of state bureaucrats, lawyers and business people, with no apparent outside experts in organization or transportation.

But, as they undertake their Sisyphean task, I hope they will give serious consideration to carving out a new agency: The Connecticut Transit Authority or CTA.

Until 1969, Connecticut used to have separate agencies for highways, transportation, aeronautics and steamships. Then they were all subsumed into the Department of Transportation, or as I think of it, the “Department of Asphalt and Concrete”. Highways always have and always will reign supreme at CDOT.

According to the widely respected Tri-State Transportation Campaign, in 2005 CDOT spent 76% of state transportation improvement money and 84% of Federal “flexible funds” on highways… at the same time Metro-North was at a near meltdown. While other states, like California, long ago halted new highway construction in favor of mass transit, CDOT lumbers on building new roads.

The six year, $1.5 billion expansion of the Q Bridge in New Haven will, by CDOT’s own admission, relieve traffic congestion for only three years before the I-95, I-91 intersection is again clogged tight. Those years of construction mess and billions of dollars will yield what?

But take that same money and invest it in expanded Shore Line East rail service and we’d relieve congestion on I-95 for decades.

While the Governor and legislature deserve credit for finally committing $3.6 billion to transportation in the last three sessions, we simply cannot trust the CDOT to allocate and administer those funds for mass transit without breaking out that priority under a separate agency.

Connecticut is the only state in the union that runs its buses and commuter trains out of its Department of Transportation… and it’s clearly not because we have some extraordinary vision or expertise. Transit, airports and water-borne transportation would all be better served by again being carved out of the CDOT and given their own budget, staff and goals.

As it stands, CDOT’s highway focus has pretty-much sublet our rail future to our vendor, Metro-North and its parent, the MTA in New York. We pay them to run our trains, set our schedules and even design our new M8 rail-cars… all without a vote on either board. We write the check but they call the tune.

Under-staffed and over-burdened, the few dedicated CDOT staffers working on bus and rail issues don’t stand a chance in an agency so clearly dominated by highway interests.

In its earliest deliberations five years ago, the state-wide Transportation Strategy Board considered creating a CT Transit Authority, but succumbed to the entrenched highway interests. Last session in the legislature a bill was introduced to reconsider the idea, but the Transportation Committee decided to wait a year.


Now’s the chance for real reform of the CDOT, and I hope the Critelli Commission seriously considers the potential for a CTA. Let’s get our trains and buses, our stations and ferries out from under the highway department!

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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 15 years. He is Chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council, a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM, but the opinions expressed here are only his own. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

1 comment:

jofuss55 said...

Does anybody know what the status of the "new" diesel fueled cars/trucks is ? i know we are now using the low particulate fuel, but with Mercedes and others enteing into the diesl market how can we participate?