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OP-ED | Connecticut Must Use Transportation Dollars More Wisely

by Susan Bigelow | Jul 19, 2013 8:56am
(7) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Opinion, Transportation

Douglas Healey Photo

Traffic slows to a crawl on I-95 in Norwalk on the first business day after the May train wreck on the Metro-North line.

According to a new report from the libertarian Reason Foundation, Connecticut’s highway system ranks near the bottom of the states. Connecticut got dinged for urban congestion, deficient bridges, and actually scored worst in the nation when it comes to administrative costs per mile. If you drive, that’s probably not surprising. So what should we do about it?

There are a couple of ways to look at this report. One is to refute it, which is what Streetsblog, a site focusing on “sustainable transportation and livable communities,” did. The report has made a splash in the media, they say, but its claims haven’t really been evaluated properly. They pointed out the obvious, which is that states with higher cost-of-living perform worse in cost-per-mile and administrative costs. This is why a state like Georgia can do relatively well while northeastern states, California, and Hawaii sit near the bottom. Also, the report seems to favor rural over urban by giving weight to urban congestion, another reason why northeastern states do poorly. Yes, we have lots of cars and people, and not a lot of space. That isn’t news.

It’s also interesting that the two areas where Connecticut did very well, poor condition of roads in rural areas (1st) and fatality rate (2nd), weren’t enough to bump us up in the rankings. The paper claims that each of the 11 factors measured were weighted equally, but it seems like the measures chosen were designed to make small, rural states look good and densely-populated urban states look bad. It’s also worth pointing out that Reason is a libertarian think tank funded by the Koch brothers, among others, which means it becomes more difficult to separate the facts from the partisan lens through which they’re seen. Therefore, take the report with a grain of salt.

That doesn’t mean it can or should be completely ignored, of course. There are plenty of problems with Connecticut’s highways. Drivers know that the highways are often clogged, especially in Fairfield County, and that often the roads aren’t in great shape. The report also highlights deficient bridges, which were the subject of a report issued last month. Interestingly, that report ranked Connecticut 27th among the states when it comes to deficient bridges; the Reason Foundation ranked us 46th. The bridge problem is slowly being fixed, according to DOT reports, but the news still isn’t all that comforting.

Another trouble area the Reason report pointed out was the surprising jump in administrative costs per mile. Connecticut ranked last in 2009, with administrative, research and planning costs totaling over $81,000 per mile. This, as the report mentions, can vary wildly from year to year, but that’s still a remarkable number. Total costs per mile were nothing to be proud of, either. These high costs, coupled with congested highways in urban areas, deficient bridges, and poor road conditions, beg the question: why are we paying so much?

All of this comes as the governor is thinking of spending yet more money on the highways. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy recently suggested that the state widen both I-95 and I-84 to three lanes throughout the state.

Unfortunately, spending more money for more roads won’t actually fix our problems.

Low-ranking northeastern states like Connecticut have reached a point of diminishing returns for their highway systems, after which throwing money at the asphalt doesn’t necessarily ease traffic all that much. In fact, studies are showing that widening and expanding the road network actually causes more traffic and congestion, as more people drive to get where they’re going.

What really helps ease congestion in a mature system like ours is getting cars off the roads, not building new spaces for cars to occupy. The Hartford-New Britain busway, or CTFastrak, is designed to do just this, as is the proposed commuter rail line from Springfield to New Haven. This also is the intent of the massive Metro-North system that stretches into Connecticut from New York City — imagine how many more lanes we’d need on I-95 if Metro-North didn’t exist. Expanding, modernizing, and funding both transit and pedestrian/cycling infrastructure in the most heavily-traveled parts of our state will keep cars off the road, which means we’ll have to spend less money fixing bridges and filling in potholes.

This should be the ultimate takeaway from this report — that we can and must use our limited transportation dollars more wisely, and plan a 21st century network that goes beyond just lane after lane of pavement.

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

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(7) Comments

posted by: Matt from CT | July 19, 2013  12:44pm

> imagine how many more lanes
>we’d need on I-95 if Metro-
>North didn’t exist.

None, because you couldn’t park the cars in Manhattan.

And if you did, you wouldn’t have as many jobs because the parking structures would displace office buildings…so you wouldn’t have as many commuters.

While we can’t be purely car-centric for how we treat cities like Hartford, New Haven, and Springfield we also have to recognize that simply building rails will not turn them into mini-Manhattans.

Although I’ve been skeptical of bikes and they do have their limitations, building more bicycle infrastructure in areas like Hartford I believe will get a bigger bang for the buck help locals move locally then you’ll ever see from commuter rail in the New Haven to Springfield corridor where most people will continue to drive from suburban homes to suburban office parks.

posted by: Susan Bigelow | July 19, 2013  4:16pm

Matt—agreed about bicycle infrastructure. I think commuter rail will work, but only as a piece of a larger system that connects suburbs to suburbs, instead of just city to city and city to suburb.

posted by: Greg | July 19, 2013  4:48pm

Malloy was recently whining about having no money for transportation no less than a week or two after the budget passed raiding the transportation fund to cover the budget deficit.  If we’re going to spend dollars more wisely, perhaps we can actually keep the dollars from the gas tax in the transportation fund from the beginning so we actually have money to spend.  I have yet to see the op-ed outrage over this diversion of money when talking about transportation. 

I agree that policy needs to shift to “alternatives” when they make sense; Matt’s suggestion of cities becoming more bike-friendly is one that doesn’t require a huge investment of funds to occur.  What I find problematic is this perpetual call for infrastructure heavy mass transit (NH-Springfield Rail and the Busway) that any logical person can see doesn’t make sense.  The density on the shorline into and out of NYC absolutely makes rail a worthy investment, but along the I-91 corridor? Between Hartford and New Britain? I can’t see it, nor do a lot of other folks who take a step back and actually think about it in practical terms of dollars invested vs ridership. 

Again, to get to the point where decisions need to be made on where the money goes, you actually need the money.  The gas tax went up $.04/gallon this month and CT perpetually has the highest gas tax in the contiguous 48…and we have NOTHING to show for it.  That won’t change until the taxpayers hold Hartford accountable for their reckless spending and illegal diversion of set-aside funds we are paying so dearly into.

posted by: Susan Bigelow | July 19, 2013  6:11pm

Greg, I’ve written about the gas tax and the transportation fund before. I agree we should actually use gas tax money for transportation.

I hear a lot about density as a reason why public transit won’t work, but there are almost two million people living in the valley from Springfield to New Haven. I think the busway will be a success, as will commuter rail.

posted by: Matt from CT | July 20, 2013  2:54am

It’s not a factor of how many people live in the New Haven—Springfield corridor.

It’s a factor of how many jobs are within walking distance of a mass transit station.

Hartford (or New Haven or Springfield) will never be the huge blackholes that suck in jobs that Manhattan or Boston are.

Part of smart transit planning has to look at our suburban towns and figure out how to make them denser both residentially and job-wise.  How do you create more garden apartments?  How do you in-fill suburban office parks and turn lawns into buildings?

That’s complex from reforming school finances (so towns aren’t hurt by population growth), to how to handle storm water no longer absorbed by the expansive lawns around office parks.

That higher density would allow a few more bike and walking commuters locally.  It’ll help people drive shorter distances by affording apartments/condos closer to work.  Local loop buses might be practical.

And longer term—decades, I won’t live to see it long, it may actually build up many points of density along the mass transit routes that make them viable.

Mass transit won’t work into Hartford, we can never reach critical mass to even have a Boston level of public transit never mind one of NYC’s quality. 

But we might, by first looking at this as how do we improve it for folks still depending on cars, develop a linear density along that corridor that might some day make it practical.

posted by: Fisherman | July 20, 2013  9:37am

The “Libertarian Reason Foundation”?

Susan, are you kidding us?  Exactly what are their credentials regarding transportation engineering?

As I stated in my reply to Susan’s last article: “Liberals such as Susan… will frequently point to “studies”; but these are (more often than not) performed by sympathizing organizations…”

That being said, you have raised a valid question:  Why DO WE spend our hard-earned money on wasteful transportation projects like Danny Malloy’s Busway, when this money would have been better spent on a high-speed rail between New Haven and Bradley International Airport…

Transportation that Connecticut residents and visitors to our state would ACTUALLY UTILIZE!

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | July 20, 2013  11:50am


We need to expand “rural” bus service in the areas around Enfield, Manchester, and Torrington. The Bus lots are never going to be effective until access from the home to the bus lots connecting to Hartford and Springfield lines are improved. Protection from the elements, etc.

The real revolution: using schools buses 24/7 in the some burbs and upgrading them to State of the Art. Dual use.