September 24, 2018
Editor's Take

Larson must show CT the money for tunnel plan

Greg Bordonaro Editor

In the memorable 1996 film "Jerry Maguire," a cocky Arizona Cardinals wide receiver, Rod Tidwell — played by Cuba Gooding Jr. — repeatedly echoed the phrase, "Show me the money," insisting he get a higher-paying contract.

The phrase has become part of the American lexicon — even being repeated by two former presidents — and has taken on various meanings.

It's relevant today when discussing Congressman John Larson's ambitious plan to bury I-84 and I-91 in tunnels to ease traffic congestion and open up Hartford to the Connecticut River.

Larson originally raised this idea about two years ago, describing it as a potential game-charger for the city and region, arguing it would reconnect Hartford, which has been split for decades by interstate highways, and re-open access to the Connecticut River.

Both are exciting opportunities that would likely lead to new real estate and other positive developments in a city desperate to grow its grand list. But a key question remains: How would Connecticut afford a project with a price tag that ranges anywhere from $10 billion to as high as $50 billion, according to one estimate.

This is where Larson, who insists the federal government should cover a significant portion of the costs, must show Connecticut taxpayers the money.

Larson's tunnel plan is getting new attention after the 10-term Democrat invited Seattle officials to Hartford so they can share their experiences with a recent tunnel project that will reconnect that city with the Puget Sound. However, they brought with them a stark warning: Don't rely too heavily on federal funding.

Seattle officials said their soon-to-open, $3.3 billion highway tunnel project, which will replace an aging viaduct, received federal funding that accounted for only about 25 percent of the total price tag.

If Connecticut saw similar federal support, Larson's tunnel vision would be too costly, particularly at a time when Connecticut's transportation fund is depleted.

Larson, who is on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, insists there is renewed focus on infrastructure investment at the federal level, but we've yet to see any real action.

President Donald Trump made infrastructure investment one of his top campaign pledges, but there's no clear path to actual legislation.

Some say if Democrats take control of the House and Senate this November, it could increase the odds of a major infrastructure investment bill, but even then Connecticut isn't guaranteed any funding.

We must also take into consideration future costs for tunnel maintenance. Too often, we focus on the upfront price tag of a new project, but forget about the costs to maintain it in the future. That's why Connecticut has billions of dollars in unfunded transportation projects, including critical upgrades to aging bridges and highways.

Would a new tunnel system also require highway tolling or other new revenues to help pay for it? The tunnel plan must be discussed in larger context of Connecticut's overall transportation goals and needs.

We applaud Larson for thinking big and bringing the two-tunnel idea back to the table. It's important to fully vet the plan, which could have the added benefit of repairing Harford's and East Hartford's crumbling levees.

(Seattle officials also said their tunnel project has led to $1 billion in new real estate investment as a result of investors buying and renovating properties near the city's soon-to-be defunct viaduct, which is a promising sign for the city of Hartford.)

This conversation comes at a critical juncture, when state transportation officials are moving ahead with plans to replace the aging I-84 viaduct, a project that will undoubtedly be impacted by a tunnel plan.

If Larson can get the federal government to shoulder a large portion of the construction we'd certainly want to learn more.

Until then, Larson's plan will remain a pipe dream.

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