Connecticut 2015: Looking Back on the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Photo: Joseph Cutrufo/TSTCPhoto: Joseph Cutrufo/TSTC

2015 was a year full of watershed moments for transportation in Connecticut: the governor announced a $100 billion, 30-year transportation vision, the state’s first bus rapid transit system was launched, a bike law reform bill was passed, legislators came close to adopting a “lockbox” for transportation funding, and a serious discussion about bringing back highway tolls has begun.

But even in Connecticut, where there has been an unprecedented amount of positive change, there were still some miscues.

The Good

CTfastrak — The tri-state region’s first true bus rapid transit system launched in March, and ridership quickly surpassed expectations — and is approaching its 2030 ridership target. The system, which planners from elsewhere in the region are looking to for inspiration, has been such a success that the state plans to expand the service to East Hartford and Manchester in 2016.

Bike law reform — Until this year, it was considered “illegal” to design and build bicycle facilities like protected bike lanes and two-way cycle tracks in Connecticut. The “bike bill,” which Tri-State and fellow advocates pushed through to passage in the 2015 legislative session, updates language in existing statues to allow for more flexible, innovative bicycle facility design and gives people on bikes the freedom to determine how to ride most safely.

Stamford complete streets, transportation bureau chief — As Stamford’s downtown and South End have boomed with new, high-density, mixed-use development, the city’s streets have continued to cater toward driving over all other modes. In 2015, Connecticut’s fastest-growing city adopted a complete streets policy and hired Joshua Benson, formerly of New York City DOT, as its first Transportation Bureau Chief. Stamford has the highest per capita pedestrian crash rate in Fairfield County; these recent moves are a sign that the city is serious about addressing the challenges presented by its streets.

The Bad

Lockbox fails to pass… twice — In the 2015 legislative session, 17 different bills aimed at amending the constitution to restrict the use of the Special Transportation Fund solely for transportation purposes were introduced. But just like in 2014, not one received a full vote. Earlier this month, Governor Malloy called a special legislative session to deal with a budget shortfall and to take another shot at passing a constitutional “lockbox” for transportation funding. While the bill passed the Senate unanimously, the House tally was just 14 votes shy of the three-fourths super-majority required to advance a constitutional amendment.

Still waiting for Finance Panel report — The Governor’s Transportation Finance Panel was supposed to come up with a “coordinated, cohesive strategy” for financing the 30-year transportation vision known as Let’s Go CT! by the end of the summer, but now it looks like the panel won’t release its recommendations until January.

Hartford Line delayed — The Hartford Line project, which will bring commuter rail to the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield corridor, was supposed to cost $435 million and launch service by the end of 2016. But management issues and cost overruns have caused the price tag to jump to $570 million and pushed the completion date back to early 2018. In a letter to USDOT Secretary Anthony Foxx, Governor Malloy called the project “grossly over budget and significantly behind schedule,” and asked for greater oversight of Amtrak, which is managing the project.

The Ugly

Distractions driving the toll conversation — If you witnessed the debates about highway tolls early in the 2015 legislative session, you would be forgiven for thinking it was still 1990 in Connecticut. Lawmakers struggled to understand that modern, all-electronic tolling systems don’t require toll booths, that tolling ought to be primarily used for mitigating congestion, and that supporting new transportation revenues doesn’t equal political suicide.

Aging viaduct nursed along while I-84 expands in Waterbury — For all the progress Connecticut has made in 2015, the state continues to surprise us with how highway projects are prioritized. In Hartford, the aging I-84 viaduct has required $60 million from ConnDOT for repairs, and will likely need another $60 million to maintain a state of good repair until there’s a decision on how to go about replacing it permanently. Meanwhile, 24 miles to the southwest, construction got underway in 2015 on the $300 million project to widen a 2.7-mile stretch of the same highway.

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