OP-ED | Connecticut Must Use Transportation Dollars More Wisely
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.