Hugh McQuaid Photo

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy told a group of transportation advocates Wednesday that he intends to have a frank conversation with the public in the coming months about the true costs of necessary infrastructure upgrades.

Malloy was the opening speaker at a Hartford forum called “Getting to Work: Transportation and Jobs Access for the 21st Century.” He told the panel that transportation will be a priority for his administration in the coming legislative session, but said the public first needs to be engaged in a candid conversation.

“Part of the problem in Connecticut is that we’ve actually not told people of the true size and the cost of what needs to be done if Connecticut is to compete in the next 50 years. There are many projects that people need to understand the scope of and the potential expense of,” he said.

The governor pointed to a series of projects including replacing aging bridges, widening I-84 between Waterbury and New York, widening I-95 between Branford and Rhode Island, expanding rail services, and more aggressively modernizing Metro North.

Malloy said he wasn’t “second-guessing” the state’s Transportation Department, which often makes decisions based on affordability rather than the best transportation policy.

“They were making judgments based on what they could reasonably look at with the state’s willingness to fund,” he said.

But rather than leaving decisions to the Transportation Department, the governor said the state’s political leadership and public need to confront daunting price tags associated with needed transportation projects.

“You can’t just complain about it—you can plan to permanently complain about it or you can plan to do something about it. I think it’s incumbent on me to have the Department of Transportation and my administration lay out what it would take to be competitive and then engage in the decision-making process,” he said.

Malloy also used the forum as an opportunity to critique New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Malloy and Christie have a longstanding rivalry. In the recent gubernatorial election, Christie, head of the Republican Governors Association, visited Connecticut five times in support of Malloy’s opponent, Tom Foley.

Malloy told the forum that his Transportation Commissioner, James Redeker, was in New Jersey on Wednesday for another forum.

“So you know he wants to get the hell out of there as quickly as he can,” he said.

Malloy then criticized Christie for scrapping a project to build a third tunnel between New Jersey and New York City.

“Can you imagine having all that money to build another tunnel and not spending it? I mean, just think about what that was all about,” Malloy said.

After his remarks, Malloy told reporters that until recently, New Jersey has made better decisions on infrastructure projects than Connecticut.

“I think that was a tragic mistake for a state that, under better leadership, had made far better long-term decisions than my state had,” he said. “If you look at the investment that New Jersey made in transportation and compared it to what we did over a 40-year period of time, they beat the pants off us.”

Malloy compared the tunnel decision to the way Connecticut funded the Quinnipiac Bridge project on I-95 in New Haven, which he said caused “entirely too much pain while it was constructed.”

“Rather than treating it as the exception, to be funded in an exceptional way, we treated it as kind of the normal course of business and allowed it to eat up 17 years of funding,” he said.