Business leaders, transportation execs talk infrastructure woes at senator’s summit

By:  Erica Moser
The Day

Local business leaders and transportation executives gathered on Tuesday afternoon for a transportation forum that touched on the viability of public-private partnerships, rail siting and transit outlook for the coming decades.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., hosted the summit at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum.

Nancy Cowser, executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Enterprise Region (seCTer), noted that in surveys, residents list transportation as at once a strength, weakness, opportunity and threat.

Cowser was one of six panelists participating. The others were Scott Bates, chairman of the Connecticut Port Authority; Amanda Ljubicic, vice president of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut; Carey Redd, director of the New London Parking Authority; Kate Rattan, senior transportation planner with the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments; and Michael Carroll, general manager of the Southeast Area Transit District.

One issue that came up repeatedly was the lack of connectedness, with Bates stressing the need to "be connected with the economic engines of New York and Boston," and to connect rail with the ports.

Cowser said the region has "tremendous assets" in terms of transportation but they're not necessarily well connected or up to date.

Speaking from the audience, state Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker said that southeastern Connecticut "is a really disconnected place, compared to other parts of the state and frankly compared to what the state needs."

Murphy said that the good news is that the recently passed omnibus spending bill includes $20 billion nationwide for transportation spending. The bad news, he feels, is President Donald Trump's proposal to flip the funding formula for project costs.

The federal government usually pays for 80 percent of highway expenditures, but Trump is proposing that grants cover no more than 20 percent of costs.

"There is no way that [Connecticut] could come up with 80 percent of the overall spending," Murphy said. Bates, Cowser and Carroll agreed with the senator's stance, saying that the federal government cannot flip the formula on its head.

Instead of federal funding, Trump would like to see more public-private partnerships.

Murphy noted that the private sector will not elect to inherit millions of dollars of backlog without first getting a public-sector commitment.

Bates said that he thinks private-public partnerships can be part of the solution but commented, "We have to be smart about it. We can't rush into it on the scale I think is being proposed."

Redd said examples of public-private partnership failures, as in Indiana, are the exception to the rule, while other communities have established partnerships that "are working very handsomely."

"You're paying either way," Murphy said, addressing discussion that frames private-sector contribution as charitable. "You are either paying in taxes, or you are paying in tolls, fees, whatever it may be that ends up guaranteeing a rate of return to the private sector."

Another topic that came up was the idea of resiting rail along the Northeast Corridor.

Murphy said he understands resistance to changing rail routes, but that if Connecticut asserts it is not interested in new rail routes, the federal government will spend money in other states.

"It's not inevitable that the Northeast rail corridor continues to run through New London," he said. "If we're unable to make tough choices, it may run somewhere else."

Murphy said one question he hears when he tries to pitch "radical ideas" for fixing rail is, "Why rebuild if we'll have Elon Musk rail underground 50 to 60 years from now?" But Murphy said we can't wait that long.

Toward the end of the summit, Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut President Tony Sheridan shared his perception that Connecticut lacks a good lobby for transportation, and called for increased regionalization.

"If anyone thinks that things are going well today in terms of transportation, I'm not sure where they're coming from, because they're not," he said. "We have a very dysfunctional system, and we have no one to blame but ourselves."