Hugh McQuaid Photo
The Transportation Caucus (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

A bipartisan group of lawmakers from Fairfield County called on the state Friday to quickly prioritize transportation infrastructure projects in their region during this year’s transportation-oriented legislative session.

“We believe the needs of our part of Connecticut are severe enough and important enough to the rest of the state to be an absolute priority,” Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, said at a state Capitol press conference Friday.

Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, said about 30 lawmakers have joined a regional Transportation Caucus to “complement” the efforts of the legislature’s existing Transportation Committee. Steinberg said Fairfield County lawmakers commend Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s attention to fixing the state’s roads, bridges, and rail systems as well as his efforts to develop a 30-year infrastructure plan.

“However, in our region of the state we recognize we don’t have 30 years, that our needs are urgent and immediate and need to be addressed now,” he said.

During the press conference, the lawmakers said improvements to Metro-North, replacements for its aging bridges, and projects improving I-95 “must rise to the top” of a list of worthy infrastructure projects likely to be considered this year.

“We are the state’s economic engine. Our residents and businesses account for more than 45 percent of Connecticut’s tax revenue and we have massive inbound and outbound commuting every day. The viability of southwestern Connecticut really is essential for Connecticut’s future. That’s why the state of our transportation infrastructure is as surprising as it is,” Lavielle said.

Although Democrats and Republicans in the caucus agreed on spending priorities, there was little support in the group for raising revenues in order to finance the projects. Malloy has not ruled out new revenue sources, including reinstating tolls on state highways, if the legislature passed a transportation “lockbox” to prevent infrastructure funds from being spent elsewhere.

Lavielle said the state will borrow money to pay most of the expenses related to expensive infrastructure projects and reduce spending elsewhere in the budget to pay for debt service.

“You hear all the conversations about tolls, which are a conversation about means, not an end. Most of us, and I won’t speak for everybody, would agree that we have to look at spending before we look at new revenue,” she said.

Steinberg suggested the state seek assistance from the federal government to fund new Metro-North bridges.

“We need to be designing them now, and planning for how we’re going to pay for them for their help. We know how much Congress loves the Northeast, but they’re going to have to find a way,” he said.

Steinberg said the regional caucus would eventually engage in a financing discussion with the governor’s office.

“He has not talked as much about how he is going to pay for it. This is why we have checks and balances in different parts of government. This is a conversation we can have in partnership with the governor,” Steinberg said.

Devon Puglia, a spokesman for Malloy who attended the press conference, said the governor’s office was “willing to work with anyone who wants to work constructively with us” on an issue that “transcends party lines.”

“There are no Democratic roads or Republican roads. That’s why it’s so important that we work together to build a great transportation infrastructure now and for generations to come,” Puglia said in an email.