OP-ED | State Needs to Prioritize How It Spends Transportation Money
With Connecticut coming in last or nearly last on so many nationwide lists, we may be numb to another dose of bad news. But this week’s report that we are tied for last place for our poor road quality demands action.
The report, issued by the White House, said that 41 percent of Connecticut’s roads are in poor condition. Responses to the news stories on our state’s last-place finish showed that people are frustrated that we are amongst the most taxed people in the nation — including our sky-high gas taxes — and yet we still have a crumbling infrastructure.
The Malloy administration has tried to deflect blame for the poor quality of the state’s roads and other transportation infrastructure, blaming instead stagnant federal funding and (surprise, surprise) previous administrations.
What Gov. Dannel P. Malloy (who never seems to miss an opportunity to blame others) fails to mention is that the state does play a role in determining which projects take priority, and also that his administration’s policies affect how much our transportation projects cost. His generous concessions to public employee unions, and his administration’s favoritism of unionized labor on state projects, is making everything the state does more expensive.
The examples of poor prioritization abound. Malloy could have prioritized fixing the rail bridge in Norwalk, which, when it recently stopped working properly, delayed Metro-North commuters on one of the busiest mass transit lines in the country. But instead he prioritized funding the $570 million New Britain-to-Hartford busway.
And while Malloy has increased transportation funding, his latest budget still moves money from the transportation fund into the general fund.
Of the $552 million budgeted for transportation projects in FY 2013, more than half, or $285 million, went to bus and rail operations, most of which are not heavily used like Metro-North. The busway is a good example of how this money gets used up — even after riders start paying to ride the new line, the state will still carry about 75 percent of the $10 million yearly maintenance cost. All that money spent subsidizing underused public transportation systems means less money for the roads and trains people actually use.
From that same $552 million, $169 million went to pay for public employee benefits, including $108.3 million for pensions, which is up from $70.4 million in 2010. The longer we delay significant public employee pension reform, the more tax dollars state pensions will eat up every year, which will affect our ability to pay for other projects.
The cost of transportation projects also goes up when Democratic state officials write contracts for transportation projects that have a “Project Labor Agreement” rider, which means only companies that employ union members get to bid on the project. That means that the 80 percent of the state’s construction companies who don’t employ union labor don’t get to bid.
Christopher Syrek, vice president of Associated Builders and Contractors of Connecticut, said the PLA riders drive up the cost of a public project by about 20 percent.
“Given our state’s fiscal situation, it’s unfortunate that the taxpayers get stuck paying more just so the project can be completed with union-only labor,” he said.
It is somewhat ironic that the road quality report was issued by Gov. Malloy’s friends in the White House. The release of the report appears to have been intended to put pressure on Congress to hike up the federal gas tax, or at least find other ways to pay for existing road projects.
In a rare case for Connecticut, we actually get more money back from the federal government in federal gas taxes than we pay in. That’s because we have a lot of heavily traveled highways packed into a relatively small space.
However, the federal government plays too much of a role in deciding how the state can spend the money it receives in transportation funds. While each state knows about how much it will get for all transportation projects, it has to get each project approved for federal funds before moving forward. That feedback loop should end, and instead states should receive their transportation funds as block grants so they can spend it on their most pressing needs.
Hopefully the states know what their priorities are.
I say hopefully, because the Malloy administration’s priorities don’t appear to fit with the needs of our state’s residents. The busway is just one example — but a very visible, egregious example — of how the state ends up spending money on what will look good to certain constituencies, instead of what makes the most sense.
Suzanne Bates is a writer living in South Windsor with her family. While traveling across the country as an Air Force spouse, she worked for news organizations including the Associated Press, the New Hampshire Union Leader, and Good Morning America Weekend. She recently completed a research fellowship at the Yankee Institute. Follow her on Twitter @suzebates.