October 27, 2020

Talking Transportation: Who’s In Charge of Our Transportation Future?

Is anyone guiding our state’s transportation future?  One wonders.

Three months into the Malloy administration, we still don’t have a Commissioner at the Department of Transportation.  Yet, the Governor is pushing legislation to eliminate the Transportation Strategy Board just a decade after its creation.

It’s clear that we are far from solving our transportation mess, so it’s disconcerting that no individual or advisory board seems to be in charge.

We’ve had five Commissioners at the DOT since Jodi Rell became Governor, the most recent leaving last July under the cloud of an alleged scandal.  So why the lack of a firm hand on the tiller of this 3,400-employee, $725 million capital budget agency?

Well, first, who would want the job?  The CDOT has careened from scandal to cost-overrun, from investigation to calls for reorganization.  It’s the agency we love to hate.  So it’s no surprise that Governor Malloy’s national search for a new Commissioner has turned up empty so far.

The last Commissioner, Joseph Marie, came to Connecticut after a national search and made tremendous progress at rebuilding morale in the agency.  His candor was refreshing.  His experience on the rail side (having just designed and built Phoenix’s light rail system) was hailed as a turning point in the agency previously dominated by highways veterans.  His deputy Commissioner, Jeff Parker, was similarly well versed and widely respected.

But when Marie was forced to resign amid unproven allegations of sexual improprieties… without so much as formal charges or investigations… Parker took over only to leave last month, impatient at the new Governor’s inability to give him the full title or replace him. 

Why then, with the CDOT in limbo, does Governor Malloy want to eliminate the Transportation Strategy Board?  At least that body had the mandate of taking a longer-term view of a 20-year plan for rail and road, airports and ports.

Created in 2001, the TSB was complemented by regional advisory TIA’s, or Transportation Investment Areas, including “The Coastal Corridor TIA” (on which I have served since its creation).  With input from the TIAs, the TSB issued its first recommendations in 2003 in a comprehensive report prioritizing long overdue investment in transportation, including ordering new rail cars for Metro-North.

There were updates in 2007 and 2011 as the body explored the links between transportation and economic development.

The first TSB Chairman, Oz Griebel, went on to run for Governor.  His successor, businessman Kevin Kelleher, missed many meetings and didn’t seem engaged in the TSB’s ongoing work.  A third Chairman, Bruce Alexander from Yale turned the TSB into a debating club, achieving little.

On one important policy issue, tolls on our highways, the TSB did a terrible job.  Unable to come to any consensus on this crucial traffic mitigation and funding source, they did what everyone previously has done with transportation:  they called for another study.  But the resulting report was so jumbled, offering nine different alternatives, that choosing among them was impossible and political suicide.

It didn’t help that then-governor Rell had rejected any tolling idea even as the million dollar report was being written.  Neither did a series of public hearings held by the TSB around the state when the report was issued.  The agency sought public comment without any explanation of the study or its proposals.

At the hearing in Norwalk only a handful of TSB members were present (with Chairman Kelleher again absent) to listen as 50 uninformed residents spouted the same old objections to tolling.  What a waste.

The tolling issue has not gone away.  Nor have questions about how we will fund mass transit with an ever-dwindling gasoline tax.  We still don’t know if Bradley Airport should be sold or continue to be run by the state… or when we’ll replace the crumbling Stamford rail station garage.  How about delays on the M8 cars due to the Japanese quake?  New highway spending, repair on hundreds of decrepit  bridges, so-called ‘high speed rail’ from New Haven to Springfield, development of our ports, overdue expansion of rail station parking… none of these issues seem closer to being addressed without leadership.

So as the TSB is legislated into oblivion and the Commissioner’s office at the CDOT continues to be occupied by Acting and Interim-titled placeholders, just who is watching over our state’s transportation future?

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 20 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council.  But the opinions expressed here are only his own.  You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct