October 1, 2018
FOCUS: Transportation/Construction

Tolls, public-private partnerships, tariffs impact CT transportation

Jennifer Carrier Connecticut Office Leader, Associate Vice President, HNTB Corp.

Funding roads, bridges and other transportation infrastructure is increasingly a source of contention in Connecticut. Early in his second term in 2015, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy laid out a $100-billion, 30-year vision for transportation investment in the state. More recently, he's sought to shore up the state's Special Transportation Fund by implementing statewide road tolls, increasing the state gas tax and charging a fee on tire purchases — controversial ideas all.

With Malloy's final days in office just a few months away, those vying to replace him have picked up the transportation football during recent gubernatorial debates, arguing about tolls and attracting private-sector money for major public projects.

Q&A talks with Jennifer Carrier, a professional engineer recently hired to lead the Connecticut office of HNTB Corp., an architectural and civic engineering consulting and construction management firm.

Q. Highway tolls are a contentious topic. What are two important points about tolls that people might not know enough about?

A. Tolling can provide Connecticut with a sustainable revenue source to bring our aging infrastructure to a state a good repair, and build the best-in-class transportation network needed to be economically competitive.

As a participant in the federal Value Pricing Pilot Program, Connecticut has a unique opportunity to help evaluate how different tolling strategies can help reduce congestion on our highways. Innovation in tolling technology has advanced significantly since Connecticut eliminated tolls in 1983.

Today, modern tolling systems use non-stop all electronic tolling that allows vehicles to continue operating at highway speed.

Q. What's the main benefit from tolling?

A. With careful planning, a well-designed tolling program can provide Connecticut with a financial foundation for future transportation needs, while creating a program that ensures equity and minimum financial burden to Connecticut residents.

In parallel with any build-out of a tolling program, ensuring toll revenues go into a "lockbox" would guarantee those funds would be spent on transportation only.

Q. How do motorists perceive tolls?

A. As it relates to the public's reception of tolling, HNTB research in 2017 found that 84 percent of Americans are willing to pay tolls and higher taxes for infrastructure if those funds are guaranteed to be used only for infrastructure.

Q. Many of the state's gubernatorial candidates seem to agree that some types of public-private partnerships are a good idea. One idea that has been talked about is bringing in private investors on big public infrastructure projects. Is this a feasible idea?

A. Public-private partnerships have long been used around the world to fund infrastructure programs, and could prove valuable if properly planned and cautiously executed.

'P3' opportunities should be considered on a case-by-case basis paying special attention to risk. Strategic application of P3s within Connecticut could help us address a backlog of transportation capital projects. Connecticut should seriously consider P3 transportation projects, maybe starting with a pilot, assessing the benefits, opportunities and risks along the way.

Q. A 25 percent federal tariff on steel is rippling through the U.S. economy. What might it mean for major infrastructure and construction projects?

A. Transportation agencies across the U.S. are now evaluating impacts and cost uncertainty of the new tariff reality on imported steel. These tariffs are a call for innovative thinking and a reminder that public agencies and private contractors must adapt to protect the public's interests.

Contracts should be structured with flexibility to allow contractors to recoup costs if commodities such as steel rise in price, and protect public dollars if prices fall.

Q. Of all civil engineers in 2016, just 10 percent were women. What's one thing the industry can do to bring more women into the field?

A. The industry should continue targeted mentoring and volunteering in local communities, partnering with organizations such as Women's Transportation Seminar, to talk with young women about careers in engineering. HNTB's Connecticut office is more than 35 percent women, many of whom are engineers.

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