Christine Stuart photo

A broad coalition of advocates gathered Tuesday at Union Station in Hartford and called on the gubernatorial candidates to adopt a set of guidelines for approaching transportation policy.

“We all agree that the public deserves safe and efficient travel and a transportation system that provides transportation options for all the residents,” Karen Burnska, coordinator of the Transit for Connecticut coalition, said. “Transportation here in Connecticut affects the lives of every person, every day.”

The coalition is asking gubernatorial candidates for a debate focused on transportation issues. They are also asking the candidates to protect the current level of funding in the Special Transportation Fund, expedite projects that have already received funding, plan for a future reduction in the Federal Highway Fund, and invest wisely in highway and transit system improvements.

Roger Reynolds of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment said he believes people are willing to make an investment in transportation if they’re guaranteed that money will be spent on transportation improvements.

He cited a Quinnipiac University poll that found support for tolls went from 39 percent to 57 percent if people were told the money would be spent on transportation.

Christine Stuart photo

“People get this,” Reynolds said. “People understand that we need to invest in our crumbling infrastructure.”

Connecticut currently doesn’t have tolls, but it did increase one of the state’s two gas taxes in 2005 in order to replenish the Special Transportation Fund.

Reynolds advocated for protecting the money in the Special Transportation Fund but admitted that it will likely take a constitutional amendment to guarantee that lawmakers are not allowed to raid it and use it for general operating funds.

Don Shubert, president of the Connecticut Construction Industries Association, said the state can throw all the money it wants at transportation improvements, but unless it has the capacity to get the right projects out at the right time, then it’s all for nothing.

“To meet Connecticut’s transportation needs, the next governor is going to need to make sure every cent of Connecticut’s available funding is put to the best possible use,” Shubert said. “The sooner we get the projects going, the sooner we create jobs.”

But both major party candidates, Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Republican Tom Foley, have said they won’t increase taxes, so how would the coalition propose paying for the transportation improvements?

Lyle Wray, executive director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments, said as long as the money goes into projects people can see, then he thinks the public would support a tax increase.

“The issue for us in terms of dealing with an uncertain future, is having a broader conversation on tolls, I hate to say it, but sales and other taxes as long as the money goes directly to projects people can see we can have a conversation.” Wray said. “If it wanders off and goes to other places, the public is lost.”

But there are already more than $10 billion in projects on the Transportation Department’s Unfundable list.

Can the candidates make the promise of improving transportation with an expiration of federal highway funding scheduled to happen in May if Congress fails to act and without increasing any state taxes?

Shubert said Connecticut does have legislation, which allows for public-private partnerships in improving infrastructure, but beyond that there’s few options aside from raising taxes or implementing tolls.

“I don’t think there are any other options out there right now that are viable,” Shubert said.

He said the governor has three choices when it comes to funding transportation. He can pursue private funding, wait and see what Congress does next year, stop transportation projects, or find money to fund the projects.

At the moment the Connecticut Transportation Department has billions of dollars of unfunded projects.

However, Burnska pointed out that the first item on the coalition’s agenda was to use all the money the state currently has earmarked for transportation, which wouldn’t require an increase in taxes. The second item on the coalition’s agenda was to expedite how projects are completed.

“That’s not asking for more money. That’s being more efficient in how projects are delivered, so maybe those are the first two things to get going as the next governor faces reviewing how we will deal with the projected funding shortfall from the feds,” Burnska said.

The coalition said they plan to call the candidates shortly to try and schedule a debate on transportation.