October 31, 2020

"Getting There" - The Transportation Treasure Hunt

 The headline a few days ago was encouraging:  “CT gets $400K grant to study improvements to Metro-North lines”.   But what’s $400,000 going to tell us that we don’t already know? 


Any rider of Metro-North knows the infrastructure is crumbling, the station parking and seating on trains (until COVID) are inadequate and, on the branch lines, the service is terrible.  So why another study?


Turns out, this Federal grant is different, as Francis Pickering, the Executive Director of the Western Connecticut Council of Governments (WCOG) explains:  “We know what needs to be fixed.  We just don’t know how to pay for it.”   That’s what this study is going to focus on.  This Federal grant is for a treasure hunt.


Remember in 2015 when Governor Malloy rolled out his 30-year, $100 billion “Let’s Go CT” transportation wish list?  Typical of a politician, he wanted credit for the vision but not the blame for paying for it.  So he created yet another “blue ribbon panel” to brainstorm on funding, and their report was filled with unpopular ideas:  raise the sales tax, raise the gasoline tax, raise DMV fees and yes, add highway tolls.


I don’t notice anyone campaigning for the legislature this year on those unpopular ideas, so are there alternatives?


Focusing specifically on the Danbury and New Canaan branch lines of Metro-North, this new study is looking to other areas’ transit improvements and how they were paid for…  like the expansion of the DC Metro’s Silver Line out to Dulles Airport.  Sure, half of its cost is being paid by tolls on the adjacent highway, but much of the rest is coming from what’s called “Value Capture”.


The thinking is, if you expand transit services then the area around stations will grow (remember TOD, transit oriented development?) as new offices and apartments are built.  That means increased property values and more taxes for the town or city.  The “value capture” idea is to get a share of that increased future tax revenue stream and use it to pay for the transit improvements.


That seems fair, right?  Only the people who benefit from the improvements (residents, land owners, developers and the towns) help to pay for them.  Layer on top of that the ideas of regional sales taxes or payroll taxes and you’re talking real money.  Of course, none of these funding options are legal in Connecticut… yet.


And to make those kinds of changes in Hartford you’ll need to get everybody on board, including the dozens of cities and towns served by those trains.  To sweeten the pot the WCOG folks are looking to expand the Danbury line, adding new stations at Wall Street in downtown Norwalk, Georgetown and points north from Danbury to New Milford.  But that assumes Metro-North is literally on board with the idea.


It will take 18 to 24 months to do this new study so there will be lots of opportunity for public input… the hope being if a funding solution works here it might be applied elsewhere in the state.


Nothing happens fast in the world of transportation in this state. 


I remember watching the diminutive Speaker of the CT House Mora Lyons in 2001, standing next to a stack of studies and reports as tall as she was, saying “enough with the studies… let’s DO something.”


Has much really changed in 20 years? 



Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

October 16, 2020

"Getting There" - A WPA Project for Transportation?

  Here’s a possible solution to Connecticut’s transportation and infrastructure problems and the state’s current unemployment woes:  a WPA style building project.

You do remember the Works Progress Administration, right?  It was FDR’s plan that put millions of unemployed Americans to work building public projects like roads, water mains, firehouses and dams.  Look around you and you’ll still see us benefiting from that investment.

But fast-forward 80 years…

Any reader of this column is all too familiar with the need for transportation investment in our state: our 7000 miles of roads and bridges in “poor condition”, the $4.6 billion needed for wastewater treatment not to mention our rusting railroads.

And everyone in Connecticut is aware of the unemployment crisis brought on by COVID: 8.2% of the state’s labor force is out of work, translating to 153,000 people without jobs, most of them now drawing benefits from our rapidly depleting Unemployment Trust Fund.  Soon the state may be borrowing from Washington to keep those unemployment checks coming.

Mind you, not every unemployed person in Connecticut is ready for manual labor.  It’s not like laid-off bankers can just pick up a shovel and start digging.  But those who are young, able and hungry enough could be candidates… or trained to be.

A few years back General Dynamics’ Electric Boat in Groton needed 4000 welders to build submarines so they turned to the local community colleges to help teach them for jobs starting at $16 an hour.

Could a new New Deal be a win-win solution for Connecticut?

State Representative Jonathan Steinberg (D-Westport) and municipal bankruptcy expert Mike Imber from Weston believe a Connecticut WPA would put thousands of people to work savings millions in unemployment checks while tackling our state’s crumbling infrastructure.

They’ve pitched the idea to the Governor’s office but so far haven’t got much of a response. 

The labor unions should be big fans of their idea, as new projects would mean work for their members… maybe even at union wages.  Best of all, Steinberg and Imber don’t think the idea would need legislative approval or state money.  Instead they suggest a P3… a Public Private Partnership.

“There are hundreds of ‘social impact’ investor funds looking to support ideas like this,” says Imber.  “There is no lack of capital.”   Investors put up the money for the projects while receiving a reasonable return over 20 or 30 years and the project remains under state ownership and control.

But there’s the rub.  Who pays the investors and with what money?

Why not the people who benefit from the projects that get built?  Water systems could charge customers for more reliable water supplies.  And the people who drive over new bridges and repaired roadways could also be charged a bit more.  Which brings us to tolls.  Yes, tolls.

“No realistic P3 model doesn’t involve tolls,” says Steinberg, long a supporter of user fees on roads and rails.  “The legislature has been gun shy about discussing tolls,” he says.  “The real question is whether Lamont will be seeking another term as Governor and is willing to invest the next two years fighting this battle (for tolls).”

Will Lamont risk his COVID-inspired high approval ratings to “do the right thing”, tackling unemployment and fix our infrastructure if it means a battle?

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

October 05, 2020

"Getting There" - The Eye of the Hurricane


When it comes to COVID’s impact on transportation in our state, we are in the eye of the hurricane.

That’s been the theme of my recent virtual talk to various Connecticut’s libraries and civic groups, comparing the calm eye of an intense storm to how we’ve become complacent about our transportation future.  We kid ourselves if we think the winds have passed.  The worst is yet to come.

Commuters who’ve returned to the rails tell me ridership is slowly coming back but many still fear for their safety on mass transit, and with good reason.

Metro-North has finally put $50 fines into effect for those refusing to wear face masks on its trains.  But they’re leaving enforcement to the MTA Police who almost never are seen on Connecticut trains.  Anecdotally I’ve heard from many riders who’ve seen non-mask wearing riders and conductors who do nothing to get them to mask up.

We’re talking about public health here.  I think anyone who refuses to wear a mask should be kicked off the train.

The back side of the COVID hurricane may see a second wave of infections, but we will certainly feel the effects of six months of financial losses born by the railroad.  The MTA’s Chairman Patrick Foye says the agency is facing an “existential challenge”… a $16 billion deficit by 2024.

Without federal help he’s predicting layoffs and service cuts to as little as one train every two hours.  Imagine how crowded those trains will be, commuters sitting three abreast among the unmasked.

But on the state level an even greater financial storm is approaching:  The Special Transportation Fund (STF) is going bankrupt faster than previously feared.

It is the STF that funds highway and bridge repairs, subsidizes mass transit and keeps transportation moving.  But it relies on gasoline and sales tax revenues that have been slammed by the virus, so by mid 2022 it will run out of money… maybe sooner.

And if the STF is in the red, nobody on Wall Street will underwrite any of Connecticut’s new bonds… not for schools or sanitation or housing.  Then what do we do?

What really galls me is that nobody is talking about this.

It is an election year (as if you haven’t noticed), but our State lawmakers have disappeared, leaving the governing of the state (by executive order) to Governor Lamont who, by recent polls, is seen as doing a good job.

Some lawmakers have complained that the legislature has been cut out of decision making, but they couldn’t cite which of Lamont’s emergency orders they took issue with.

Aside from their brief summer session when they passed an omnibus police reform package, now receiving criticism after we understand its details, our State Reps and Senators are AWOL.

Oh, they’re campaigning, but not talking about what’s coming in the next session.

Of course they don’t want to tell you now what’s going to be necessary to re-fund the STF:  a combination of tolls, new taxes and higher fares.  They’ll leave that bad news until after they are re-elected.

That’s why all of us must force their hand.  Go to their campaign rallies (fully masked) and upcoming League of Women Voters debates and ask them, on the record, where they stand on tolls and taxes.  And if not those remedies, what are their alternatives?

Then we can all cast an informed vote and decide who’s best to help us weather the storm yet to come.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


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