Amid the deepening of Connecticut’s already profound fiscal crisis, the state Department of Transportation has announced this year that it cannot meet its obligations to the public without a substantial influx of new revenue into the Special Transportation Fund. Without that revenue, the DOT commissioner — who must do what he can with whatever funds he receives from the state — has said that rail and bus fares must be raised substantially while service must be reduced and a long list of projects costing $4.3 billion must be postponed or abandoned.
The question of where the revenue would come from has dominated most legislative discussion of the problem. Even though any source would work, the focus has been on transportation-related revenues: gas tax increases, a new tire tax, tolls, and accelerating a planned transfer from the general fund of the sales tax on new cars.
But what about spending?
If the circumstances are so dire — and they are, in every area of the state budget — the need to ask a lot of questions about the DOT’s currently scheduled infrastructure capital projects is clear. In particular, could they be more cost effective while still meeting optimal safety and operational standards? The question seems obvious, but it’s not always being asked, or answered.
As an example, one project that could benefit from this type of analysis is the Walk Bridge in Norwalk. This critical link in the Metro-North commuter rail system was built in 1896 with a complex swing mechanism that has a recent history of getting stuck.
There is no question that the Walk Bridge urgently needs to be renovated or replaced. That said, given Connecticut’s financial situation, it’s disconcerting that the state is moving ahead on a plan to rebuild the bridge with an entirely new lift mechanism at a cost of $1.1 billion, plus years of great inconvenience to Norwalk because of serious business and traffic disruption. Furthermore, the administration has not made available a full evaluation of alternative plans, despite repeated requests by Norwalkers.
Many in Norwalk believe that much cheaper and better plans may be workable, including securing the swing mechanism in a fixed position, or building a new fixed bridge at the same track height. A number of residents and business owners have even formed a non-profit neighborhood and business group called Norwalk Harbor Keeper, which is suing the state and the federal government in federal court on the grounds of incomplete analysis. The purpose is not to stop the project outright, but rather to require the state to follow the law and fully evaluate all alternatives to see if less costly and less disruptive plans could do the job.
A financial crisis as longstanding and severe as Connecticut’s requires flexible, creative thinking and a willingness to face fiscal realities. Norwalk Harbor Keeper, in urging the state at least to consider alternative plans for the Walk Bridge seriously, is setting an excellent example.
But the urging shouldn’t be necessary, and nor should lawsuits. The state is in severe financial trouble. Turning exclusively to collecting revenue from a shrinking tax base is neither good policy nor effective. As legislators, instead of listening only to the set of revenue choices put before us, we must, as a priority, require thorough scrutiny of every transportation project, to ensure that all viable alternatives have been given due consideration. Exercising this kind of oversight should cause no controversy. It is simply the responsible thing to do.