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January 22, 2024 Editor’s Take

Bordonaro: Grand plans to reshape Hartford’s transportation infrastructure are nice. But, how will we pay for it?

RENDERINGS | CONTRIBUTED The Greater Hartford Mobility Study recommends the construction of two new bridges over the Connecticut River connecting Hartford and East Hartford. One bridge would carry I-84 and Route 2 traffic to East Hartford. Another would connect the Sheldon/Charter Oak neighborhood with a new, river-oriented, mid-rise neighborhood in East Hartford.
Click below to see more about what the Greater Hartford Mobility Study recommends.
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The state Department of Transportation recently released a detailed study recommending transformative changes to Greater Hartford’s highway and other infrastructure that aim to ease roadway congestion and open more land in Hartford and East Hartford for possible development.

Many of the high-profile recommendations in the Greater Hartford Mobility Study have been discussed in the past, including the relocation of the I-84/I-91 interchange and lowering of the I-84 viaduct.

Greg Bordonaro

Those are potentially smart long-term investments that could benefit the region and enhance economic development within the city of Hartford and neighboring East Hartford, including reconnecting both municipalities to the Connecticut River.

Some of the recommendations mirror what was pitched a few years ago in the Hartford 400 plan, developed by prominent urban planner Doug Suisman and backed by the iQuilt Partnership in Hartford.

The Greater Hartford Mobility Study also recommends a network of new trails, bikeways and transit options.

While having a plan and vision are important to achieving any ambitious transportation infrastructure overhaul, the study doesn’t seem to bring any of these projects closer to reality.

That’s because it fails to address perhaps the most important aspect of any major infrastructure plan: how to pay for it.

In fact, the report mentions little about the cost of the dozens of recommended short-, medium- and long-term projects.

Without a clear funding plan, one could skeptically presume this will be another study that ends up on a shelf collecting dust.

In a follow-up email exchange with the DOT, an agency spokesman provided HBJ with cost estimates. Overall, the entire program will probably carry a $10 billion to $12 billion price tag, money the DOT and state obviously don’t have in their coffers.

The projects, DOT said, would need to be planned for and included in future capital programs, and require continued state funding to match future federal dollars over the next three decades.

Yikes. Sustained investment from the state and federal governments over three decades? That would require ongoing support from new administrations at the state and federal levels, each with their own priorities that might not include transportation infrastructure investment.

Connecticut already has a checkered history on funding transportation. A January 2020 CT Mirror article, aptly headlined “Broken promises to fund transportation defined last 15 years,” backs up that assertion.

The article, penned by well-known state budget reporter Keith Phaneuf, said: “Connecticut’s transportation program has been riddled, for more than a decade, by broken funding promises from both political parties. Between 2007 and 2019, officials pledged hundreds of millions of dollars for highways, bridges and rail lines, only to frequently snatch portions of it away at the last minute.”

To be fair, coming up with a funding plan to underwrite billions of dollars in new infrastructure investment isn’t the responsibility of those involved in putting together the Greater Hartford Mobility Study. It’s the job of state policymakers, and it may not be politically popular.

A rendering of a new riverfront boulevard in downtown Hartford envisioned by the Greater Hartford Mobility Study.

Gov. Ned Lamont’s first year in office provides a good case study. Lamont hit a roadblock in 2019 when he proposed adding electronic highway tolling on cars and trucks in order to generate much-needed revenue to maintain and upgrade the state’s aging transportation infrastructure.

Two separate tolling plans in 2019 and 2020 failed to garner support from the General Assembly, and helped sink the Democratic governor’s early approval ratings to below 30%, according to a Sacred Heart University poll.

Lamont argued, at the time, the state’s key revenue sources that fund transportation investment, including the gasoline and sales taxes, didn’t provide the reliable revenues the state needs. That still remains a longer-term issue, although Lamont in 2021 did persuade the legislature to approve a new highway mileage tax on most large commercial trucks.

This is not meant to dismiss the hard work that went into preparing the Greater Hartford Mobility Study, which incorporated input from many stakeholders and was thorough in its analysis and recommendations.

But until there is a realistic funding plan in place, it’s hard to envision grand plans to reshape Hartford’s inefficient highway system becoming reality.

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