Governor's $21 Billion Transportation Plan Would Increase Capacity On State Highways, But Some Say That Can Lead To More Gridlock
Hartford Courant, November 20, 2019
By Daniela Altimari
Gov. Ned Lamont is touting his sweeping $21 billion proposal to overhaul the state’s transportation system as a “10-year, responsibly-funded and financed vision of the future ... that Connecticut residents deserve.”
But some critics say the plan — which allocates $14 billion to road and bridge improvements and $6.2 billion to railroad projects but just $450 million to enhancing bus service and earmarks even less for sidewalks and bicycles — falls far short.
Lamont’s proposal, in their view, is reflective of a 20th-century mindset that placed a premium on speeding up highway travel, an approach they say will create more traffic tie-ups and lead to an increase in suburban sprawl and a spike in greenhouse gas emissions.
“A highway-heavy proposal that focuses on road expansion ... is really a missed opportunity,” said Melissa Kaplan-Macey, vice president of state programs at the Regional Plan Association, a research and advocacy group devoted to sustainability and improving the quality of life in the tri-state area. “Highway projects will create more congestion in the long run if we aren’t managing demand.”
Most of the public’s attention has focused on Lamont’s plan to pay for his ambitious infrastructure overhaul through a combination of federal loans and electronic tolls collected from motorists.
Tolls, in particular, have been a flashpoint, drawing condemnation from Republicans in the legislature and rejected by some Democrats as well. Lamont’s plan needs approval from the legislature, and its fate grew murky last week after Senate Democrats essentially took tolls off the table as a way to pay for upgrades to the transportation system.
Kaplan-Macey supports Lamont’s call for electronic tolling, which she views as a user fee. “When you travel by train, you don’t just walk on without paying for a ticket,” she said. “There’s this nonsense argument that highways should be free. You’re using a piece of infrastructure, and right now it’s free, but there are no free lunches.”
But Lamont’s proposal, dubbed CT2030, would have an impact on Connecticut residents that transcends tolls, said Anthony Cherolis, coordinator of Transport Hartford, a group dedicated to increasing engagement on transportation that operates under the umbrella of the Center for Latino Progress.
“A plan that includes interstate and state route expansion and capacity increases under the guise of addressing chokepoints will result in additional miles driven and pressure for continued development of Connecticut’s farms, forests and rural green spaces,” Cherolis said in an email. “Both of those outcomes will reduce air quality and increase greenhouse gas emissions. Any congestion reduction benefits of increased interstate lanes or state route intersection expansion will be temporary.”
Max Reiss, a spokesman for Lamont, said the plan is “a living document” and was meant to spark discussion as well as lay out a vision. Lamont and his supporters also had to be mindful of the political realities of getting the proposal through the legislature, he said.
“We’re not saying the plan is perfect, but it is fully funded, and it is responsibly funded,” Reiss said. “We want to get people home faster, and we want to get people to work faster."
Gannon Long, a Hartford community activist and the assistant coordinator of Transport Hartford, said Lamont’s proposal is defined as much by what it lacks as by what it contains.
“There’s no mention of bicycles at all,” Long said. “Despite [spending] $21 billion, you have zero investments in bike lanes, bike racks, any type of bike infrastructure.”
The proposal also devotes scant attention to sidewalks, she said. “This clearly was not written by people who walk to work or bike for transportation or even take the bus," Long said.
“The improvements that we’re proposing to Metro-North have never been proposed before,” Reiss said. “They would be historic, and they would be transformative, and they would absolutely get people off the roads.”
More congestion? back to top
But some experts say the central provision in Lamont’s transportation overhaul — $14 billion in road and bridge repairs — could create more congestion even as it attempts to unsnarl existing bottlenecks. The plan calls for the widening of I-95 in Bridgeport, reconfiguring the I-91-I-691-Route 15 interchange in Meriden and relieving congestion on I-84 and I-91, among other projects.
Transportation experts are increasingly recognizing that improving a road’s capacity often leads, counterintuitively, to more traffic, said Chris McCahill, deputy director at the State Smart Transportation Initiative, a collaboration between the University of Wisconsin and Smart Growth America that promotes environmentally sustainable transportation practices.
“It varies from place to place, but often when you’re adding road capacity, you’re really just inducing more vehicle traffic,” said McCahill, who previously worked as a researcher at UConn.
Critics say Lamont’s plan does not lay out such strategies. “Right now, there is no incentive to not drive in Connecticut, other than to be stuck in traffic, which really isn’t an incentive because there’s no alternative,” said Kaplan-Macey, the vice president at the Regional Plan Association. “We need to manage the choices people are making and encourage people to travel together.”
Kaplan-Macey applauded Lamont’s decision to propose tolls, despite the political blowback. But overall, she said the plan does not “create a system that discourages people from driving by themselves in their cars, which is ultimately where we want to end up."
Reiss, the governor’s spokesman, said the plan does not significantly expand the footprint of any of the state’s major highways. But it does lay out a vision for members for the business community and a motoring public, which has been clamoring for a solution to the state’s traffic headaches.
“Part of this is public demand,” he said. “They’re demanding faster speeds.”
Long, the Hartford community activist, said the plan has to answer a key question: “What kind of state do we want to have in 10 years? Do we want to have wide highways and worse congestion than we have now, or do we want to have a statewide bike network and mass transit that is faster than taking the highway?"
Long, who has been working on an engagement program with youth in Hartford on the issue of transportation, said the time is right to think big.
“We could have sidewalks that are safe and wide and promote community gathering and economic development," she said. "There’s lots of opportunity here.”