Gov. Rell Tells Lawmakers State Must Split ConnDOT

Wed April 02, 2008 - Northeast Edition
James A. Merolla



Tired of mismanaged or badly done highway projects that have divided her administration, divided drivers avoiding closed lanes, and split up her transportation funding budget, Gov. Jodi Rell has decided to split something much bigger — the Connecticut Department of Transportation itself.

In early March, Rell gave testimony to the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee expressing strong support of legislation she is proposing that will replace the Department of Transportation with two new agencies — the Department of Public Transportation, Aviation and Ports and the Department of Highways.

“Over the last three years, we have provided unprecedented funding for transportation improvements throughout the state,” Rell said. “Yet, it has become obvious that the Department of Transportation — as presently structured — is not equipped to manage our ambitious transportation agenda. All of the funding in the world will not achieve our desired goal if the agency cannot move these projects forward in an efficient, coordinated and timely manner.

“DOT as an institution has simply become too bureaucratic and too single-minded in its problem-solving approach. The structure of our transportation agency has not evolved at the same pace as our transportation needs have evolved,” added Gov. Rell in testimony. “Bold reforms are necessary. I am calling for an end to the old DOT and the creation of two new and focused departments. I want to create the best and safest transportation system in the country — a system that includes an unprecedented focus on mass transit.”

Under Rell’s proposal, the new Department of Public Transportation, Aviation and Ports would be responsible for bus and rail passenger transportation, rail freight, non-motorized (e.g., bicycle) transportation, ferries, ride-sharing and van-pooling, the State Pier in New London, other maritime programs, Bradley International Airport and the state’s general aviation airports. The Department of Highways will be responsible for interstate and state highways and bridges.

Two Departments, 10 Points

Rell said her proposed reorganization, effective Jan. 1, 2010, would:

• Allow each agency to better focus on its mission and on the systems that promote its goals;

• Enhance the standing of public transportation and explore its ramifications for development and conservation;

• Promote more specialized expertise and abilities within each agency;

• Create a chief operating officer position accountable to the commissioner for the day-to-day operations of the DOT and the implementation of department wide policies;

• Create an Office of Strategic Planning and Evaluation reporting directly to the commissioner of DOT. This office will work closely with the Transportation Strategy Board and other agencies to provide a more long-term, comprehensive and strategic view of transportation;

• Add financial positions to enhance DOT financial operations and provide timely federal reporting and audit capacity;

• Separate the Bureau of Engineering and Highways to enable Engineering to operate as a shared service and to develop more engineering capability tailored to public transportation needs;

• Implement a “511” system that will allow the public to retrieve timely, accurate and reliable travel information by telephone; and

• Establish a Citizen Representative to receive day-to-day feedback from the public on transportation issues.

“In this way each agency will be able to focus on its own goals — and the standing of public transportation, and all of its ramifications for responsible growth, will be enhanced,” Rell said. “I want to give rise to a culture of change, opportunity and reform at DOT. No longer will the phrase ’That’s how we’ve always done it’ be justification for the practice.

“This proposal does not question the commitment and dedication of the thousands of employees who work for DOT. To the contrary, it is my goal to put in place an operational structure that will help our transportation professionals achieve their own full potential, as well as the full potential of what our transportation system can and must be.”

Gets Legislative Support

Last year, Rell appointed a Commission on the Reorganization of the Department of Transportation, chaired by Pitney Bowes Chairman Michael Critelli. That commission concluded that “the entire system of planning, funding, delivering, and maintaining transportation services, of which ConnDOT is the central part, needs serious re-examination.”

The commission made a number of specific recommendations for improving DOT’s operations and management, several of which are funded in the governor’s proposed budget and included in Senate Bill 46, which is pending before the Transportation Committee. Other recommendations are in the process of being implemented.

Rell said her plan to create two new agencies would finally end her state’s DOT’s long-running concentration on building and maintaining roads.

“The standing of public transportation, and all of its ramifications for responsible growth, will be enhanced,” Rell said during what turned out to be a 43-minute speech.

Rell and the legislature have in the past three years committed billions of dollars to rehabilitating and expanding public transportation and for efforts to ease highway gridlock.

Rell’s proposal initially has produced favored support from lawmakers in both parties who have criticized the DOT for years.

“We loved hearing that,” State House Speaker James A. Amann, D-Milford, said of Rell’s proposal.

“We’ve been talking about that for 10 years.” State Sen. Ed Meyer, D-Guilford, also praised the plan. “Three commissioners (at DOT) in three years are too much,” Meyer said, referring to changes at the agency.

“The breakup of the DOT is huge,” said a delighted state House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk.

“Not only is it necessary, it’s long overdue,” said state Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield. “It (the DOT) has only been a roadblock.”

DOT Officials Disagree

However, a DOT official at the hearing said that DOT should add manpower, rather than splitting the agency.

Travis Woodward, a state transportation engineer and construction inspector in charge of DOT projects from New Haven to Greenwich, testified to legislators that a project he was overseeing in Bridgeport called for extra inspectors, but that he was the only inspector available for the job, so he said he spends most of his time at the construction site and catches up on paperwork on rainy days.

“We just don’t have the staff,” Woodward told legislators.

State budget director Robert Genuario of Norwalk told lawmakers at the recent hearing that the administration was still working out details of a DOT breakup.

“The ultimate plans would be part of the next budget cycle,” next year, Genuario said. “Right now, we’re looking at a global concept. We’re starting to work out what functions will go into each department.”

To no one’s surprise, the DOT’s unionized employees have been critical of the proposal since it was first proposed. Several testified at the hearing.

Denise Eaton, also an engineer and inspector working in the New Haven-to-Greenwich area, told lawmakers the department’s staff has been reduced during the past 20 years.

“We’re not all happy campers,” Woodward said when asked by lawmakers about department morale. “You feel like you’re being asked to do a lot of work with very little appreciation.”

Acting DOT Commissioner Emil Frankel of Westport — who ran the department from 1991 to 1995 and returned in January — has said that since his departure, DOT staffing declined from 4,233 to 3,244.

Rell said DOT employees were good at their jobs, but management was top heavy and, in these trying economic times, too bloated.

“When I created the Commission to reform the DOT, I said I wanted a more responsive and responsible agency with a refocused mission,” Rell said. “It is clear that the vast majority of DOT employees are dedicated individuals who work hard to meet the transportation needs of our citizens and our economy. However, it is equally clear that the DOT as an institution is simply too bureaucratic, too inefficient, and too single minded in its approach to problem solving.

“Transportation is critical to our economic future and bold reforms are necessary to provide our citizens with the transportation system they expect and deserve. We have made unprecedented investments in our transportation infrastructure and unprecedented progress on transportation issues over the past three years. We now need a new organizational structure to leverage those investments and create a true 21st century transportation system.

“After January 1, 2010, we will have a whole new DOT with an organizational structure better equipped to manage the important transportation projects we are initiating across Connecticut,” Gov. Rell added. “We needed a cultural change at the DOT. With the national search for a new commissioner progressing and a new structure slated for the agency, we will institute that change.”

$33.5 Million in New Construction Spending

Rell’s determined dividing plan to end division, comes on March news that the State Bond Commission has approved $33.5 million for new construction — $13.5 million for design and property acquisition for the new West Haven rail station on Metro-North’s New Haven Line and $20 million for several road projects.

At the request of Rell, the Bond Commission approved:

• $6.9 million for safety improvements on Whalley Avenue (Route 63) in New Haven;

• $6.5 million for improvements at the intersection of Route 66, Boston and Old Mill Roads in Middletown;

• $3.75 million for an environmental assessment and design improvements on I-91 in Windsor in the vicinity of Day Hill Road;

• $1.85 million for improvements to Route 229 in Bristol for industrial development; and

• $1 million to design improvements on I-84 eastbound in Danbury at Exits 1 and 2.

The funding for the West Haven train station will allow the continued acquisition of property required to complete the project and to continue the design process. If all goes well, construction will begin in 2009 and the project will be completed in 2010. CEG