In 2007, after a troubled widening of I-84, a reform commission reported that the Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) “badly needs fundamental change.”
TSTC analyses indicate that ConnDOT has been slowly improving since then, and we sat down with Commissioner Jim Redeker, who has headed the agency since last March, to talk about his work. He will be speaking at tomorrow’s transportation financing forum in Hartford.
TSTC: How did your work at NJ Transit prepare you for the commissioner job?
Commissioner Jim Redeker: I think that Connecticut is much like New Jersey was 30 years ago: there’s not a lot of transportation-oriented development happening, there’s still opportunity for new investment in transit and opportunity to improve branch lines. And I really came to try to make a difference there.
TSTC: What are some of the other priorities that you see moving forward?
JR: Connecticut has, as do all northeastern states, an extensive transportation network, be that highway or transit. It is old. So my goals really start with state of good repair and they have to come first. The rail system has not had the benefit of Amtrak’s funding mechanism to help pay for infrastructure, and with a hundred-year-old infrastructure of movable bridges, catenary signals, and track, it could be a risk.
Beyond that, I think there are opportunities to make the system work better. And that can be in speeding up transit services, investing in new equipment, adding capacity through parking and new vehicles, bringing new technologies in, and making our highway systems function better. Branch lines offer opportunities as well. Just small incremental improvements, from a dollar point of view, can make major changes in service.
TSTC: How are you bringing change into your agency?
JR: I’m not. It’s sort of happening on its own. And that’s the great part of it. For example, I didn’t say we should put a bike path on the Putnam Bridge. My engineering group came to me and said, “we’re doing it, is that okay?” And I said, “Okay?! What are you talking about? Sure!”
I also think that having a full-time bicycle coordinator is beginning to make a change, but it’s not just because Kate Rattan [Connecticut’s bicycle coordinator] does a great job. It’s because the design group, the financial group, engineering, and planning are working together. My goal is to set some aggressive dates to get things done. I’m just patching together what have heretofore been independent ideas, and if I can set a goal, independent ideas become a strategy, and we’ll get them done. I’m trying to be the cheerleader that makes that happen.
TSTC: TSTC advocated for the transit-oriented development grants that came out this year. Who’s taking the lead to make sure that they are successful on a local level?
JR: We’re working on it together. You will hear over and over again that the three amigos [Jim Redeker of ConnDOT, Dan Esty of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, and Catherine Smith of Department of Economic and Community Development] meet regularly, and that’s true. We meet on a monthly basis, and it really is about smart growth. We’re identifying what resources can come to bear; what priorities should be set. And then we select those priorities and make sure that our agencies individually and collectively get things done. What we’ve got is a complete administration and set of commissioners that get it.
TSTC: Over ½ of Connecticut transit riders take the bus. What can they expect as a result of the January 1st fare increase?
JR: Let me dislink the fares from the service for the moment—I don’t think it’s in our interest to say that each dollar in a fare increase goes to a dollar in service. Frankly, it was 5 years without a fare increase, Connecticut bus fares are some of the lowest anywhere, and this increase is a nickel. I think that we’ve been very sensitive to the needs and income of users in shaping what we did.
But we are constantly looking at service. We will be replacing almost all of our buses with the greenest fleet east of California. We’re also putting in some high capacity articulated hybrid buses—the first of their kind—that give us high capacity capabilities and could potentially add service without increased cost.
We’re also trying to push very hard on integrating our system design. One of the hardest things in Connecticut for me was to figure out 24 different operators with different systems, logos, information systems, and websites. With Google Transit, we’ve got the beginnings of a system of information, but there’s a lot more integration to go.
TSTC: We strongly support the complete streets bill in Connecticut. How are you implementing it?
JR: That’s an easy answer—we have adopted a complete streets philosophy into our design process from the beginning. It’s fully embraced and you’ll see it as part of everything that we do.
TSTC: You’re speaking at our transportation financing forum. Could you give a preview of how you see Connecticut financing its transportation priorities and addressing the issues that you’ve raised today?
JR: No previews—that wouldn’t be fair to everyone else. But I will say that I’m sitting at a time in Connecticut that couldn’t be better, with a governor that added a billion dollars into highways and transit.
TSTC: Especially when you look at the surrounding states.
JR: Yeah, exactly, all of the other commissioners want to move to Connecticut and take my job. But, to get back to the question, there also are other opportunities here—we are studying tolling, we’ve got two pilot programs. The governor has also passed legislation that you might think is about project delivery, but it’s also about a type of financing called public-private partnership. These are all mechanisms that, to me, when you put them on the table, show that there are new ways of looking at how we fund projects.
TSTC: Thanks for speaking with us.