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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.

February 04, 2008

“The Critelli Commission”

The Governor’s “blue ribbon” commission studying the reform of the Department of Transportation, headed by (Darien resident and) Pitney Bowes Chairman Michael Critelli, has finally issued its draft report.

While much of the report addresses the dysfunctional organization of this immense agency, I am personally pleased that the Commission also picked up on some suggestions for improving rail service. Among them…

  • Expanding parking at all rail stations, but leaving the towns to price and administer the issuance of permits.
  • Revisit the Metro-North contract for the operation of our trains with an eye toward greater parity between the railroad and CDOT.
  • Focus on the maintenance and repair of our railroad bridges, 206 of the 325 of which are rated as being in less than satisfactory condition.
  • Better coordinate bus and rail schedules to offer riders of both an inter-modal transit experience.
  • Evaluate an independent Transportation Authority (like the MTA or NJ Transit) which could serve the interests of mass transit apart from the highway interests which dominate our current CDOT. (Connecticut is the only state in the union that runs mass transit out of its DOT).
  • Speed up construction of commuter rail on the New Haven to Springfield corridor.
  • Expand service on the Danbury, Waterbury and Shore Line East branch lines.
  • Finally do something to offer a rail freight alternative in Connecticut.

But, beyond rail, the Critelli Commission also suggested some ideas to make CDOT more “user friendly”, following the lead of other states.

  • Have a website where consumers can actually find information. For example, when construction projects are scheduled and, if they are running late, why and when they’ll be completed.
  • Offer a 511 dial-in service for all traffic and transit updates. Using such a service a traveler could ask “If I leave Stamford right now, how long would it take under current conditions to get to New Haven?”, and be told travel time by road and rail.
  • Finally, the Critelli Commission deserves commendation for embracing an often forgotten transportation alternative… pedestrians and bikers. Think of how many additional auto parking spaces could be found at stations if bike paths and bike lockers were available at stations for local commuters… or even sidewalks to walk safely to mass transit.

The Critelli Commission report is now added to that ever-growing pile of studies and reports on what ails our state’s transportation systems. Nay-sayers will claim this study, like scores before it, will add up to nothing. But I’m an eternal optimist and feel otherwise.

If the current national search for a new Commissioner of the DOT turns up someone with organizational skills and vision, the Critelli Commission’s recommendations could become a roadmap to our future.