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Affordability of Connecticut transportation plan questioned

October 17, 2015 GMT

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut’s lingering budget problems are prompting questions about whether the state can afford Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposed 20-year, $100 billion plan to overhaul aging roads, bridges and rail lines.

Despite calls to put “people before projects” — a phrase used by family members of the intellectually disabled who are worried about Malloy’s mid-year budget cuts to human services — the Democratic governor is standing by his massive initiative. He contends people don’t understand how years of underinvesting in transportation have harmed the state economically.

“I think people seize arguments to try to bolster the point that they want make without examining the consequences of a lack of investment,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press, adding how the traffic congestion cost in Connecticut is $4.2 billion annually.

“No one disagrees that Connecticut is under-invested in transportation. Everybody wants a better transportation system, but nobody wants to pay for it,” he said, adding how years of underfunding transportation occurred because that money has been raided for other programs.

“It’s always something before projects,” he said. “But eventually, the projects come home to roost.”

Republican and Democratic legislators in recent weeks have voiced concerns about the $103 million in mid-year budget cuts Malloy is making to help balance the $20 billion state budget, just three months into the new fiscal year. Some are suggesting scaling back funds earmarked for transportation to help offset cuts to hospitals, mental health care, day programs for people with developmental disabilities and other initiatives.

“My opinion is, transportation should still be an option,” said Rep. Cathy Abercrombie, D-Meriden, the co-chairman of the General Assembly’s Human Services Committee. “I still don’t believe we have to do everything in this budget, not at the expense of our families who are being hurt by these cuts.”

Rep. John Hampton, D-Simsbury, member of a new bipartisan caucus that advocates for people with disabilities, said he agrees the transportation initiative could be scaled back. Hampton, who did not vote for the budget, said the lack of available programs for people with developmental disabilities is becoming a crisis.

“I don’t understand the governor’s whole mentality,” he said. “If we don’t invest in these adults now, we’re going to pay later.”

Rep. Jay Case, R-Winsted, whose 50-year-old brother has intellectual disabilities and lives in an intermediate care center, said if the funding is cut, people’s “lives are just going to go down the tubes.” He said there “has to be a happy medium” between funding transportation and human services.

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said Abercrombie, Hampton and Case are not alone. She said “there’s a lot of buyer’s remorse” among lawmakers who supported the new two-year $40 billion Democratic budget, which eventually sets aside 0.5 percent of the state’s 6.35 percent sales tax for transportation-related expenses and borrows $2.8 billion for a five-year ramp-up of transportation-related projects.

On Oct. 1, the first 0.3 percent of the tax was set aside for transportation. The amount increases to 0.4 percent on Oct. 1, 2016 and to 0.5 percent on July 1, 2017.

“We all agree there needs to be investment in infrastructure, transportation, no question about it,” Klarides said. “But it comes back to, we only have a limited amount of resources and we’re in a deficit. Let’s prioritize and put in an amount of money we can afford.”

The questioning of Malloy’s transportation plan comes as a new Quinnipiac University Poll shows only 32 percent of registered voters approve of the job he is doing, his lowest approval rating to date. Forty-one percent approve of his handling of transportation matters, the highest score he received among key issues. Poll Director Douglas Schwartz said the low approval rating could hinder the governor’s efforts to pursue his agenda.

Malloy denied it will have an impact.

Malloy reminds the public that a vote has not yet been taken on the actual scale of the transportation overhaul. A panel is currently meeting to come up with funding options.

However, the governor said $100 billion is what Connecticut ultimately needs to have a “best in class” transportation system, something that will ultimately improve the state’s business environment, economy and coffers.

“This is so critical. The CEOs have been very clear. They really think this is the role of government, to make sure the infrastructure works,” said Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Catherine Smith. “This is not the place right now for the state to start whacking away in the state budget.”