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CT House Passes Compromise Transportation Funding Package

Wed May 17, 2006 - Northeast Edition
Cara Rubinsky



HARTFORD, CT (AP) The state House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a 10-year, $2.3-billion transportation package April 26 that would fund mass transit improvements without requiring tolls or an increase in the gas tax.

The bill, a compromise between Democratic legislative leaders and Gov. M. Jodi Rell, passed the House 143-4 and next goes to the Senate, where it also was expected to pass easily.

It includes money for a commuter rail line from New Haven to Springfield, MA, with stops in Hartford and other towns; a study of a commuter line from New London to Worcester, MA; and parking and station improvements for most state rail lines.

The plan builds on an effort that started last year with Rell’s 10-year, $1.3-billion transportation initiative, which included money for new rail cars for Metro-North, highway improvements and 25 new Connecticut Transit buses.

The latest phase focuses on mass transit, though it includes some money to study highway projects.

“For too many years, congestion has clogged our highways,” Rell said in a statement. “Commuters can’t get to work on time. Companies have trouble attracting new employees. Families cannot easily get to our parks, beaches and recreational areas. Tourists are often discouraged by the traffic delays in our state. With this legislation, everything changes.”

The bill would make the Transportation Strategy Board part of the state budget office, among other steps to improve coordination of transportation projects. It also would require the governor’s office to start formal discussions with Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island on ways to enhance regional commuter and freight mobility.

Lawmakers said the improvements are necessary because severe traffic congestion is hampering economic growth and costing the state jobs.

“The gridlock and congestion on our highways is not only killing our citizens, it’s polluting our air and choking our economy,” said Rep. Steven Mikutel, D-Griswold.

Lawmakers next year plan to set aside another $2.2 billion to $2.4 billion for other projects, including highway construction, recommended by the state Transportation Strategy Board, said House Speaker James Amann, D-Milford.

“They’ve been at the table now for almost three weeks working on this proposal, and I think it’s going to change the landscape of our state,” Amann said.

The bill authorizes the state to issue up to $1 billion in special tax obligation bonds for the projects. The state also can borrow $1.3 billion against future federal funds, a provision that raised concerns among some legislators. An additional $80 million to $100 million a year will come from the gross receipts tax on petroleum products, which now goes into the general fund. The gross receipts tax will not increase.

“We think that’s the way to go,” said Robert Genuario, Rell’s budget director. “We think it would not have been wise in this particularly volatile climate to increase the gasoline tax or increase a tax that would inevitably cause a rise in gasoline prices.”

State Rep. Lenny Winkler, R-Groton, said she would prefer to see extra money from the gross receipts tax used to offset skyrocketing gas prices.

Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, said the money for public transportation is particularly important.

“The days of simply widening roads and highways are over,” Williams said. “While we must maintain our roads and bridges, we must also have a greater commitment to mass transit, rail freight and use of our deep water ports.”

Springfield Mayor Charles Ryan said the commuter rail link between his city and New Haven, which has been talked about for years, would be an economic boon to both states. The proposal also included bus service from Bradley International Airport to the rail line.

“It’s common sense that we try to tie these states together,” Ryan said. “Good rail service is critical to helping improve our economy.”