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OP-ED | State Needs to Prioritize How It Spends Transportation Money

by Suzanne Bates | Jul 18, 2014 12:00pm
(12) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Opinion, Taxes, Transportation

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.

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(12) Comments

posted by: RogueReporterCT | July 18, 2014  1:57pm

RogueReporterCT

I told my relatives in California that in CT, money meant for transportation gets put in the general fund, and they thought that someone should be arrested for doing that.

posted by: ocoandasoc | July 18, 2014  4:36pm

Ms. Bates article is right on. It should be shocking and disturbing for CT residents, but, as she observes, most of them are already numb from articles detailing the State’s mismanagement.
Soon , however, there may be an example so egregious that it cannot be ignored. The boondoggle $570+ million busway project will open in a few weeks and soon provide a vivid example of State government incompetence. State politicians are already trying to distance themselves from the project, calling it a mistake, even though they supported it and voted for it. The State keeps lowering the ridership estimates, now not remotely close to the numbers they threw around earlier, but they are still way too optimistic.  I predict that by the end of its first year in operation that every $1.50 ride on the busway will cost taxpayers $16 or more (maybe a LOT more!). Don’t be surprised if they push the opening back a bit so it’s closer to election day, and then make light of the first dismal ridership numbers claiming that “it will take a while to catch on.”  The sad truth is that due to political shenanigans Connecticut’s transportation infrastructure may have passed the “tipping point” and be literally beyond fixing in any true sense of the word.
I’m counting on CT News Junkie down the road to publish the numbers and provide an analysis of the wasted dollars. But I guarantee that the CT DOT will do their best to throw some kind of positive spin on this disaster.

posted by: shinningstars122 | July 19, 2014  7:35am

shinningstars122

Susan’s Saturday morning drive by strikes again.

It is always entertaining to reduce infrastructure issues to the current administration.

I mean the GOP was in power at the Governorship for what 20 years?!?

I agree about the gas tax revenues being used for the general fund and that should stop.

The point is if the state is going to completely shoulder the cost of infrastructure repair that means bonding…which from often reading your column Susan is not one of your more cherished government functions.

As for the busway… I take it you have never lived in a city that has a subway?

CT used to have trolleys in almost every major city at the start of the 20th century and were enormously popular and functional.

It was not until the automobile lobby wanted a different vision for America..poof! The trolley’s were gone from Hartford.

I strongly believe that the metro Hartford area has to come into the 21st century in regards to mass transit.

The Metro North coming to Hartford, with it more convenient access to Bradley, and the busway are steps in the right direction.

I am sure in five years you will be eating crow as the residents north and east of Hartford will want to see this system be expanded to their communities…South Windsor among them.

As for us in NW CT we have seen more paving in the last two years than in the previous ten. RT 8, RT 219, RT 20. They are also currently beginning work on the Rt 44 bridge in Winsted as well.

Infrastructure repair had been abandoned by politicians for nearly 20 years in our country it is painfully obvious that thinking needs to change.

posted by: DrHunterSThompson | July 19, 2014  10:06am

DrHunterSThompson

And night follows day.

HST

posted by: Fisherman | July 19, 2014  5:39pm

Apparently,Shinningstars122 missed the point; Malloy’s Bus-way Debacle is owned lock-stock and barrel by Dan Malloy; not by “20 years of the GOP”.

They said no-way: its a waste of money. And they were right. We should have put our money into New Haven to Windsor Locks… not New Britain to Hartford.

posted by: Thinkdeeper | July 20, 2014  9:20am

It is not fair for any thoughtful person to suggest that limiting government work to union labor is bad because it’ll cost more. Remember that unions exist to protect the basic safety and fairness of work situations.  Unfortunately I would not trust a company that doesn’t work with unions to do the same. That’s how they can cut costs. Cheaper certainly doesn’t mean better or safer and the secondary purpose of funding these projects is to provide work to locals.

posted by: dano860 | July 20, 2014  3:07pm

Transportation, in specific roads, in Ct were the shinning stars at one time. The Wilbur Cross was the first limited access highway in the nation. Rt. 12 in Thompson was the first concrete road in Ct. Today, we are listed as having 41% of our roads in poor condition…by the Feds. The ones that kick back a big sum of money for repairs and maintenance. What if we were only 30% rated? We would still be in a pickle and priorities would still be lacking and the General Fund would still be sucking money out of transportation to flush into the lost cities of Ct.
I remember the attempt to put a beltway around Hartford, they built the elevation for what is now Rt 291 in 1962. The “stacks” were built in West Hartford as a connector for Rt 9 & Rt 291. What happened to that project? Some say it was Beatrice Aurbach, the matriarch of G. Fox & Co. My guess it was many Beatrice’s that didn’t want a highway out through New Britian and W. Hartford.
The people mover will put Dannel in the same boat as Ella Grasso and her “people mover”. Look it up, the year was 1974 and even then they were throwing up stuff like ‘air pollution’ and to many cars. Heck, the NAACP was opposed to it, Ben Andrews said it was a waste of money and a failed experiment. Ben was a real nice guy too, I really liked him.
If this was a GOP supported issue I doubt that Sen. Joe Markley would have been so strongly against it.
The State needs to revamp the way they do business and dump a lot of the time consuming, antiquated methods of operation that they consider doctrine.

posted by: Suzanne Bates | July 20, 2014  5:55pm

It is true that governors and state legislators share the blame for the situation we’ve gotten ourselves in. But Malloy has been in charge for three 1/2 years now and he needs to start taking some responsibility for where things stand. I have lived in many cities with mass transit, including NYC, and I like mass transit. But we don’t always have the populations to sustain it (thus “mass” transit). The busway is one example of an enormously expensive project to benefit a small population, when our Metro-North infrastructure is falling apart. And shinningstars122, I’m not opposed to bonding, but we’re already paying $400 million out of transportation budget to pay for our debts, almost as much state money as we spend per year on transportation projects.

As for the union labor - to suggest that the 80 percent of construction companies in the state who don’t use union labor will treat their employees poorly and do shoddy work is completely unfair, and untrue. When the state limits the bids to union-only companies, it reduces the number of bids that come in and drives up the cost. That hurts all of us.

posted by: Matt W. | July 21, 2014  9:21am

Matt W.

HST: Well played!  If Malloy were blaming previous administrations while proposing his plan for getting the roads repaired, I’d be fine with it. I don’t mind a little political nonsense if it accompanies actual solutions. But blaming is all he’s doing. We are standing in a burning building and all he can do is try to convince us that he didn’t start the fire but he’s not doing a thing to put it out!

posted by: shinningstars122 | July 21, 2014  8:03pm

shinningstars122

Suzanne I totally disagree with your assessment of public transit in the metro Hartford/New Haven area.

Plus I am not even adding Springfield.

The combined metro population of both areas is over 2 million residents.

In comparison Portland, Oregon, which has a very popular and successful trolley/ bus system has a metro population of just over 2.3 million. Granted the city itself is almost 600,000 but   it is over 145 square miles.

Hartford is only 18 sq/miles so it is key that the suburbs be connected.

That is why the busway can work.

If you look at the data from the website for the high speed rail, they can be doing 1.26 million trips annually by 2030, or 3452 rides a day. A target that is very achievable.

These two combined can lead us into a future that will attract young people to our area, spur economic growth, and reduce carbon emissions and traffic.
http://www.nhhsrail.com/benefits/

Plus being able to get to NY in under 2 hours is a must as well as Boston.

As for union labor many municipal contracts are non-union as are the majority of commercial projects.

Or even the recent MDC project was non-union, I mean those folks would not even hire local minority contractors.

So please stop thinking that the union work is the problem.

Construction workers deserve a good salary and full benefits…it is not easy work and the economic benefits are huge.

They spend locally.

posted by: dano860 | July 23, 2014  6:53am

In any State or Federal RFQ the bidders must adhere to the ‘prevailing wage’ or ‘Davis Bacon’ pay /cost schedule. These are derived from mandated Union pay scales. Why? The Unions would never be awarded any of these contracts if they had to fend for themselves. So they get preferential treatment by creating a false cost of any project. This action causes any and all of these projects to be far more expensive than they need to be.

posted by: Suzanne Bates | July 25, 2014  9:40am

shinningstars122 - The Portland area is very different from our Hartford-Springfield-New Haven area—just reading that should make it clear why. Portland has one primary hub, while the area you’re comparing it to has three, and only New Haven might - small might - be called a destination city. The other difference is the people of Portland are clearly invested in having a robust public transportation system, and are willing to invest in it and subsidize it. In some of the places I’ve lived, I was also willing to make that sacrifice because it made sense. I do not hear that same message from people in our region, unless they are public transportation advocates or union reps who want the work.

The union-only bids do drive up cost, primarily because it drives down the number of bids on a project. The prevailing wage issue also drives up cost. There is a reason everything is more expensive here, which means we can do far less with the same amount of money as other states.