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Lamont puts down a marker at DOT

December 26, 2018

Gov.-elect Ned Lamont could not have been clearer with his recently announced choice to lead the state Department of Transportation. Though the state has long been dominated by single-occupancy cars and the infrastructure to support them, the administration is headed in a different direction.

Lamont announced Friday he is nominating Joe Giulietti, who recently served as president of the MTA Metro-North Railroad, as DOT commissioner. Giulietti, who according to a news release was hired by the MTA to restore safety and confidence in the railroad system, is what Lamont calls “a true believer in the connection between strategic transportation planning and economic development.”

Economic development was the No. 1 issue in the recent gubernatorial election — specifically the lack of it in Connecticut since the end of the last recession. Though 2018’s job gains are the best the state has seen in some time, it still lags its neighbors in the Northeast, to say nothing of states in the growing South and West.

There are many factors to blame for that lack of growth, but experts on all sides agree transportation is high on the list. If it takes an hour to get 12 miles up the highway from one city to another, and no reliable alternative exists, growth will necessarily be stifled.

Outgoing Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and his DOT commissioners recognized these issues, as well, and dedicated much effort to funding improvements. Had the Legislature moved ahead on the governor’s 30-year transportation overhaul, the state would be in a better position today to attract new residents and improve its economic condition.

And Malloy’s insistence on pushing ahead with a New Haven-to-Springfield, Mass., passenger rail line should be considered among his top accomplishments.

Still, for all its well-considered transit improvements, the 30-year plan also included an enormous, costly and ultimately pointless plan to expand the state’s major highways. Interstate 95 would have gained a lane in each direction from one state line to the other, and I-84 would have gained its own new lanes for most of its western half.

Expanded highways sound good to anyone sitting in traffic at rush hour, but over the long run they do little to cut congestion. When more lanes are open, history has shown, more people choose to drive, quickly eliminating the gains from a project that would cost billions of dollars.

So the focus must be first and highest on mass transit. Connecticut has unused infrastructure in place that could be put to better use. More trains, more dependable service and better rider satisfaction should take high priorities.

And it bears mentioning that these initiatives are worthwhile even for people who never set foot on a train. A well-rounded transit system with plenty of options benefits everyone, drivers very much included.

Transit-oriented development, where communities build around transit stops, is a well-established principle in the state, and it promises many benefits. But it needs to be done right. Putting transit front and center at the top of state government is an excellent place to start.

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