December 10, 2018

As toll debate rages on, DOT wants $12.1B over next five years to invest in CT's infrastructure

HBJ Photo | Sean Teehan
HBJ Photo | Sean Teehan
Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker is calling for $12.1 billion in transportation projects over the next five years.
Photos | HBJ File
Two major projects that were completed under the watch of Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker were the $769 million Hartford rail line and the controversial CTfastrak busway connecting New Britain to Hartford.

DOT's sleeper issue: Evolving transportation technology

During a wide-ranging interview, Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker was asked to pinpoint a sleeper issue for his agency that's not being discussed much publicly, but will be a big deal in the future.

His answer: technology.

Here's what he had to say:

Redeker: Technology has been part of our strategy, but I think it's going to be something that really will force a shift in terms of what we do, and who needs to be here to do that.

In the biggest picture, as we look at automated vehicle technologies and communications systems, that will drive systems here. For example, we're initiating several projects that will put in smart traffic signals. Those smart traffic signals can be adapted to communicate back and forth to vehicles for real-time stoplights, but also for safety.

So, there's this vehicle-to-infrastructure and vehicle-to-vehicle technology, all of which requires a capacity within the DOT to build those, to maintain them, to operate them, and to use them for information. The skill sets and challenges and opportunities, that's what's going to be a change for the DOT.

And that is happening at the same time as (we're) watching 2020 as a date when many people will be retiring.

A new capital plan recently released by the state Department of Transportation (DOT) calls on Connecticut to spend $12.1 billion over the next five years to rebuild its highways and bridges and invest in public transportation.

That funding total would be a significant ramp-up from actual spending in the previous five years, when DOT invested more than $7.7 billion in capital projects.

As it stands now, the plan is largely a wish list, since it would require the legislature and Bond Commission to approve billions of dollars in additional funding. However, it does offer a roadmap that the state DOT, under the leadership of current Commissioner James Redeker, hopes to pursue over the next half-decade.

Things, of course, could change as it's uncertain whether Redeker will remain commissioner under the new administration of Gov.-elect Ned Lamont. In an interview, Lamont said he is in the process of identifying and recruiting agency commissioners and he wouldn't commit to Redeker as his DOT choice.

For now, Redeker still heads DOT, and from his chair projects ranging from the I-84 viaduct replacement in Hartford to a $265 million I-91/Route 15 reconfiguration and a $100 million reconstruction of an I-84 stretch in Danbury, are top priorities in the years ahead.

DOT's push for increased investment comes as Connecticut continues to face big decisions about its future transportation strategy.

Revenue shortfalls in the state's Special Transportation Fund led Malloy in January to put on hold more than 400 DOT projects — worth nearly $4.3 billion — across the state. Those were put back in action when the state legislature transferred tax revenue funds for transportation use in fiscal 2019.

That action stabilized the fund for the next three or four years, a DOT spokesman said, but it's unclear whether it will remain sound after that.

"Our capital program's about a $2 billion-a-year program," Redeker said, adding that's not enough to meet his infrastructure goals. "So, we'll have to generate more money, and I think the answer's really a combination of picking the projects that can advance, get that economic return, potentially have some of that return back into transportation."

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has been a major proponent of boosting infrastructure investment, having unveiled a 30-year, $100 billion plan in 2015 to overhaul the state's transportation infrastructure. Finding revenue to fund that ambitious plan long term, however, has been a challenge, especially as lawmakers have been skittish about adopting electronic highway tolls.

A DOT study released last month claimed that installing statewide tolls on Connecticut's highways could generate $1 billion in annual revenue. DOT itself is remaining neutral on the tolls issue, but Lamont, a Democrat, has said he supports limited tolling on tractor-trailers. However, it's not clear if that strategy will pass legal muster as a similar law in Rhode Island is being challenged in federal court.

Meantime, on Election Day voters approved a transportation funding lockbox, which could provide better safeguards for transportation funds in the future and make it more palatable for lawmakers to adopt a tolling system. Some have charged, however, that the lockbox won't be airtight, and that lawmakers could still divert transportation funds to help balance the state's future operating budgets, as they've done in past years to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Regardless, the guiding principle behind transportation investment, Redeker says, is improving the state economy and making it easier to move goods and people across Connecticut.

The business community agrees the DOT needs a cash infusion to make the kinds of improvements that would make Connecticut more attractive to businesses and individuals, said Joe Brennan, president and CEO of the Connecticut Business & Industry Association.

"I think there's a general recognition that we need to upgrade our infrastructure, and we need resources to pay for it," Brennan said.

However, CBIA's board hasn't endorsed tolls and Brennan said the DOT proposal to install 82 toll gantries statewide would put more tolling plazas in Connecticut than exist in many other states.

The CEO-led Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth recently backed a project-specific tolling system to bolster infrastructure investment in the state.

Redeker's tenure

An ambitious infrastructure plan is nothing knew for Redeker — large-scale transportation projects aimed at economic development have been a hallmark of his time leading the DOT.

"If you're going to fix the economy, you're going to have to improve rail service, improve bus service, and you're going to have to get rid of congestion on highways," Redeker said during a wide-ranging interview.

He initially joined the agency in 2009 as chief of public transportation, but was promoted to acting DOT commissioner toward the beginning of 2011, after predecessor Jeffrey Parker retired. Redeker's position as DOT head was made permanent about five months later.

Progress was relatively slow, at first, Redeker said.

"In the first term, [transportation] was not the priority," he said.

But when Malloy won reelection in 2014, that changed.

"He basically called me in the next day, and said, 'Are you ready?' " Redeker recalled. "I said, 'What are we doing?' He said, 'We're doing transportation for this term.'"

That meant a five-year "Ramp-up Transportation Plan" that allocated $2.8 billion in transportation funding to kickstart a host of transportation projects starting in 2015.

Some of that went to high-profile undertakings like the $769 million Hartford Line rail project — which re-established passenger rail service between Hartford and Springfield, Mass. — and a $2 billion reconstruction of New Haven's Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge, also known as the Q-Bridge, which was completed eight months ahead of schedule.

The $570 million CTfastrak busway connecting New Britain to Hartford also debuted under Redeker's watch.

When it comes to the Hartford Line, Redeker points to early successes, including about $400 million in transit-oriented development tied to the train line, and higher-than-expected ridership, including more than 47,000 passengers in October.

According to its capital spending plan, the DOT anticipates spending $2.6 billion in federal fiscal year 2019, which began Oct. 1. That amount includes about $1 billion for bus and rail services and $1.6 billion for highway and bridge infrastructure.

Construction on the Merritt Parkway corridor improvement project from Fairfield to Westport and the rehabilitation of the I-84/Route 8 Interchange in Waterbury would continue in 2019.

Of the total $12.1 billion in desired funds, which would include state and federal monies, 62 percent would go to highway projects, 36 percent would be used for public transportation and 2 percent for facilities.

Meantime, DOT is finishing up an environmental analysis for the planned I-84 Hartford viaduct project, which calls for the replacement of an aging bridge on a key highway stretch in Hartford. DOT officials are currently waiting on federal officials to release a record of decision regarding its environmental analysis — likely by early 2020 — which will include a financing and funding plan, Redeker said. Those results will give him a better idea of a construction timeline for the project.

DOT is also considering a high-profile proposal by Congressman John Larson to build a tunnel under the I-84, I-91 interchange in Hartford, which would put traffic underground and open up about 200 acres of undeveloped land in the city.

DOT officials were looking into this option before Larson proposed it, Redeker said, but right now it's one of six possibilities. A final decision on how to approach the interchange is probably a few years away, Redeker said.

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