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February 15, 2008

Fixing the Connecticut DOT

It’s the government agency we love to hate. Who hasn’t been stuck in endless construction delays on I-95 and not cursed the Connecticut DOT? And what commuter hasn’t shivered on an aging Metro-North train lacking heat and not asked “Who’s running this darn railroad?”

Mind you, I have a lot of respect for the CDOT and its 3,800 employees, most of whom labor long and hard to improve transportation in our state. [Full disclosure: I wanted to be a transportation engineer and studied that at Lehigh University for about one semester before the Arts College seemed more viable.] The problem is, the CDOT is so unwieldy and poorly managed that the staff can’t get things done.

Remember the collapse of the Mianus River Bridge 20 years ago? CDOT took most of the blame, but it was the governor and legislature that cut funding and forced a reduction of safety inspections.

Sure, there are corruption and payoffs. The mess over the I-84 storm sewers showed us that, but again it was lack of oversight that didn’t catch that problem. And yes, there’s even an arrogance among some staffers which doesn’t endear the agency to the public.

True story: a CDOT engineer was at a public meeting over a planned highway widening project requiring the felling of some old trees. When a citizen asked why it was necessary to chop down the trees, the CDOT engineer answered… “You wouldn’t understand. You’re not an engineer.” Nice.

The recently issued Critelli Commission report on reform of the CDOT recounts dozens of such problems within the agency. And to her credit, Governor Rell has not only read the report’s recommendations but is acting upon them.

In her recent budget address, Governor Rell called for splitting the CDOT into two agencies… a Department of Highways and a separate Department of Public Transportation, Aviation and Ports. Connecticut would thus follow the lead of the other 49 states that recognize the need to carve out separate agencies for these disparate duties.

For years now I’ve been calling for creation of a CTA… Connecticut Transportation Authority… and this comes pretty darn close. It’s time to get mass transit away from the asphalt and concrete interests that dominate CDOT.

In 2005, when Metro-North was at a near melt-down due to lack of investment in new rail cars, CDOT spent 76% of state transportation improvement money and 84% of Federal flexible funds on highways.

While states like California have long ago halted new highway construction in favor of mass transit, we in “the land of steady habits” see our DOT spending six years and $1.5 billion on the Q bridge project in New Haven. Were that money instead invested in expanded Shore Line East service, we’d lessen traffic for decades and avoid years of construction delays.

On the mass transit side of the current CDOT there’s too little staff and far too much work. Long over-due projects to repair our stations and expand parking languish on the “to do” list as rail and bus administrators just try to keep the system running week to week.

But a new day is dawning for Metro-North riders come the delivery of new rail cars in 2009 – 2010. We have much to do to prepare for their arrival… including an $800 million maintenance shop in New Haven that’s way, way over budget. But that’s the topic for a future column.

1 comment:

Mike Critelli said...

Thank you for your complimentary remarks on our Commission Report. I just want to make two points regarding ConnDOT:

- There is no perfect final structure for addressing the state's transportation issues. The Governor's proposal has advantages and disadvantages, although, on balance, it is a compelling response to a clear problem: the historically-inadequate focus on public transportation. If implemented, it would need to be supplemented with structures or processes that would insure prioritization among different modes of transportation, better inter-modal coordination and cooperation, and shared services functions that would enable efficiency. It would create better focus on public transportation, but we will continue to need focus on upgrading poor quality highway infrastructure, particularly bridges, culverts, and road designs that are not optimal from a safety standpoint.

- Regardless of what structure we adopt, ConnDOT is horrifically under-staffed to accomplish any mission. It had 3,800 employees years ago, but is hovering around 3,250 employees. Whether we need to add back 500 employees is debatable, but we desperately need to upgrade its staffing, and to fix the broken processes for recruiting and hiring, which involve better cooperation with the Department of Administrative Services and the various labor unions.

Mike Critelli