Transportation Policy and Infrastructure Overdose

Posted on Friday, December 12 2008 by Heather Brandon

Where We LiveYesterday I appeared alongside the Courant‘s esteemed Tom Condon on an episode of John Dankosky’s show, “Where We Live,” at Hartford-based WNPR. We discussed how Barack Obama’s proposed economic stimulus might benefit Connecticut’s infrastructure.

Other guests via phone during the show included Connecticut Governor M. Jodi Rell and Jim Cameron of Darien, blogger and chairman of the volunteer CT Metro-North Rail Commuter Council. Rell began the show with her call to share what priority projects are emerging for the stimulus funding, and Dankosky pressed her with questions about whether there is any broader vision behind all the assorted projects, and who should be making key decisions about selecting them.

Moses Wheeler BridgeRell said she thought such decisions should essentially lie within the state legislature with an emphasis on getting people to work. She didn’t mention many specifics, but spoke broadly of roads, bridges, dams, and water and sewer projects. She briefly cited Moses Wheeler Bridge (pictured) over the Housatonic River, adding that safety is an important issue in considering how to allocate infrastructure spending.

The bridge, between Bridgeport and New Haven, carries I-95 spans the river between Stratford and Milford, and is scheduled to be replaced completely by 2016 following an feasibility study and re-design by STV Inc. It’s also about to undergo work, beginning early next year, to preserve its structural integrity for the time being; a contract has been granted to Minnesota-based Abhe & Svoboda, Inc. at a cost of just under $2.5 million. Whether stimulus funding could go toward shoring up the bridge temporarily, or replacing it instead, which will be more costly, wasn’t clear.

As the show progressed we ended up talking a great deal about transportation, and also a bit about housing and transit-oriented development, among other topics. Both Condon and I are supporters of the proposal to establish a north-south commuter rail link through Hartford. We mused on why the project isn’t an apparent priority for the state with respect to the stimulus funding. Callers to the show were excited by the topic but also wondered whether we ought to consider one angle or another, all of them with great contributions to the discussion. Producer Catie Talarski told us the phones were lit up early in the show. Many calls couldn’t be taken in the time allowed, and it was evidently among the more popular recent episodes.

In a blog post following the show, Dankosky took on a listener’s question about whether we talked too much about “pet transportation projects.” He wrote, “We talked about wiring cities with fiber-optics and broadband access, about building affordable housing around transportation hubs (yeah, yeah…train stations) and moving freight by ferry…thus getting more trucks off the roads.”

My argument for talking so much about transportation is that it happens to be critical for economic growth, and indeed it does include repair to worn-out and well-traveled sidewalks and roads. I’m also fresh from finishing a term paper this week on regional transportation planning and policy-making in the state, having also examined a recent governor’s commission report (PDF) recommending essential ConnDOT reform.

There is a lot of infrastructure talk in the news lately, too, including much public transportation buzz, related especially to the proposed federal stimulus. Fellow Hartford blogger Kerri Provost mentioned infrastructure spending in the state in a recent post on Real Hartford. Christopher Conkey and Brody Mullins pointed out in an article last month in the Wall Street Journal that perhaps there has been some pent-up demand. There have been a number of public hearings recently related to ongoing projects, and there are yet more meetings planned about how to collaborate moving forward.

Rell issued a press release earlier this week announcing her request to municipal leaders, state legislators and state agencies regarding the stimulus. Speaking with Dankosky yesterday, she mentioned mayors are generally requesting aid for public works projects. From her release:

Governor Rell has already asked state agencies—especially the Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Works—to identify projects where design work and the permit process are complete. These are projects where the state could break ground as soon as federal aid was available, retaining and creating much-needed jobs.

Recognizing that cities and towns have similar needs and that local leaders and elected representatives have unique knowledge of their communities, the Governor is asking them to help identify projects that fit the “shovel-ready” criteria. …

“It is important to remember that these projects should be ready to proceed as soon as funding is available, and that job retention and creation should be a consideration in prioritizing the projects you recommend,” the Governor wrote, cautioning again that funding is far from certain – and that even if a stimulus bill is passed it will not pay for everything cities, towns and the state would like to accomplish.

The Hartford-based Capitol Region Council of Governments collected such suggestions from its 29 member municipalities to submit to ConnDOT. The tentative list of candidate projects (PDF) is sorted into four categories: transit ($1.2 million); road and bridge ($223.4 million); pedestrian and bike ($50 million); and public works and public safety ($163.3 million). These projects are sorted only alphabetically by municipality. Some submitted lengthy lists of projects and some submitted very short ones, and the list is not yet complete.

The transit project list is very short and is noted as concerning Greater Hartford. It reads:

$300,000 Replace elevators at Hartford’s Union Station
$500,000 Bus Berthing Area at Union Station
$250,000 Spruce Street surface parking resurfacing
$80,000 Lighting improvements surrounding Union Station
$70,000 Parking revenue management system at Spruce St parking

On the WNPR episode page, scrolling down a bit, you may also listen to Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez describe the infrastructure projects he would prioritize for the city. He succinctly mentioned the $50 million flood control system needing work, which has already received $13 million from the city; the planned public safety complex centralizing police and fire services; around $200 million in various streetscape projects; and a number of school projects that may have to be deferred without federal assistance. The Hartford projects in the CRCOG list are:

Road improvements

$500,000 New Park Avenue Culvert Replacement
$800,000 Mark Twain Drive Construction
$658,440 Edgewood Street Infracstructure Upgrades
$10,000,000 Hartford Traffic Signal System Upgrade
$2,000,000 Pope Commons Streetscape
$4,000,000 Farmington Avenue Streetscape
$8,000,000 Mill and Pave Major Arterial Street through out the City
$2,000,000 Parkville Streetscape Phase #2
$750,000 12 City bridge rehab
$2,000,000 City Wide street light Replacement
$19,000,000 Wethersfield Avenue Streetscape
$20,010,000 Asylum Street Streetscape
$10,500,000 Main Street Streetscape Phase #1
$21,600,000 Main Street Streetscape Phase #2

Pedestrian and bike improvements

$5,000,000 City Wide Sidewalk Replacement
$500,000 South Branch Park River Trail Phase #2
$325,000 Legislative Office Building Path—repair & improve
$20,000,000 Riverwalk South with connection to Coltsville

Public safety improvements

$85,000,000 Public Safety Complex construction

Public works improvements

$1,900,000 Salt Storage facility
$4,000,000 Park River conduit cleaning
$1,000,000 North Meadows Storm Drain upgrade
$2,000,000 Folly Brook Conduit Reconstruction
$175,000 #2 Holcomb Street Sewer Lateral Replacement
$1,100,000 Bulky Waste/Recycling Transfer Station

What projects would you prioritize, and how would you go about deciding? Does a “fix it first” policy make the most sense; ought the state to have a broad vision for making change of some kind? Where will the vision come from? Are these competing approaches or can we take care of these things simultaneously?

4 Responses to “Transportation Policy and Infrastructure Overdose”

  1. Herb

    Are these competing approaches or can we take care of these things simultaneously?

    Unfortunately, I do think these are competing approaches, at least for transportation. The “fix it first” approach is very short-term since we pretty much no what’s broken. The “vision” approach, while necessary years of analysis planning to make sure that we get what we want *and* that we get it right the first time or we get to do it all again in 70 years.

    The good news is that I think planners are pretty good at designing projects with an eye toward future developments, even without an overarching vision. It’s not as efficient as doing it with a vision but it seems to be a reasonable compromise. I do think that any of the “fix it first” approaches need to have an eye toward these broader future uses.

  2. Herb

    (and I apparently screwed up the formatting of the last post. Oh well).

    As for “After this week I’m simply never going to discuss transportation infrastructure or policy again”, I believe that about as much as I believed Jay-Z’s “The Black Album” would be his swan song. ;)

  3. Heather Brandon

    Herb, you seem to be saying planners are… smart and resourceful! How about that.

    The Economist weighed in on this subject last week with a short op-ed about how the nation as a whole has lacked a vision for infrastructure. On the bright side, “The federal government’s failure to invest in infrastructure has had one good effect. It has pushed much of the burden on to states and cities, whose efforts are scrutinised much more closely by taxpayers and the media.”

  4. EmGee

    I hadn’t ever really thought of streetscaping as an infrastructure project before. To me, the streetscaping that has been done around town (Park Street, the ongoing work on Trumbull Street, Maple Avenue) are more aesthetic projects.

    Regardless, I would prioritize all of the streetscape projects listed above, because I love the results of the projects that have been completed. Park Street looks great. It’s nice to walk down and ride a bike down. It’s attractive and inviting. Farmington Avenue needs that kind of feel. So does Main Street. Doing some serious work on Asylum Avenue would be great, and if Pope Commons is the area I’m thinking of (on Park Street along Pope Park?), that area would DEFINITELY benefit from some TLC that would connect it to the two sections of Park Street that have been and are being revamped.

    The other project I would prioritize is Riverwalk South. The river is a sorely underused and underhighlighted resource in this city. It should be a major attraction for walking and jogging and biking and picnicking.

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