SOUTHINGTON, CT — It was billed as a transportation forum for Republican gubernatorial hopefuls, but very few addressed the issue during the 10 minutes they were allotted to address more than 300 members of the Connecticut Construction Industries Association.
The problem: Connecticut’s special transportation fund will start running a deficit in 2019. Current estimates say it’ll be $38.1 million in the red.
This means that without additional revenue most of Connecticut’s transportation improvements and operations will come to a screeching halt.
Don Shubert, president of the Connecticut Construction Industries Association, said it would have been nice to hear more specific information on how to deal with recent developments.
Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who is not seeking re-election, outlined the problem with the special transportation fund a week ago.
However, Shubert said, “out of fairness, I think it takes some time to process the discussion.”
One of the 10 Republican gubernatorial candidates who attended the forum did address the issue.
Joe Visconti, a building contractor from West Hartford who petitioned his way onto the ballot in 2014 and ended up getting around 11,000 votes, said “there is no way. It is impossible and any other candidate who tells you otherwise is lying to you. There’s no way, from where we are today, to not have some form of tax increase or fee increase on certain things.”
Visconti, a Trump supporter who has raised less than $3,000 for his gubernatorial campaign so far, said the additional revenue needed wouldn’t be a lot, but it’ll be necessary to maintain Connecticut’s transportation infrastructure.
He said he doesn’t want to politicize it, but he wants to tell the truth.
Visconti said the predictability of a fee increase, along with a strategic vision for how to best use those funds, is what business is looking for in the state.
Most of the candidates Friday used their time to give their stump speeches and offered an overview of why they’re running for governor. Some touched on the larger budget and economic issues facing the state, while others simply described state government as the “mafia.”
Candidate Scott Merrell said the government has too much power. Merrell was arrested in 2010 on a first-degree trespassing charge when he refused to leave the 4,000 square foot Norwalk mansion from which he’d been evicted over a failure to pay a $110,000 tax judgment.
“They stole everything away,” Merrell told the crowd.
Mike Handler, the chief finance director in Stamford, marveled at how Connecticut’s highways can still be congested when 20,000 people are leaving the state every year.
“We must change the culture,” Handler said. “We must be proactive and not reactive.”
He said they should start thinking about how autonomous vehicles will start impacting things like parking.
“As a state we need good roads, bridges, and trains,” Handler said, adding that addressing transportation needs is vital to the economic health of the state.
Trumbull Mayor Timothy Herbst said transportation reform is just “as critical as pension reform.”
He said if you kick the can down the road too much it gets to a tipping point where you realize, “how are we going to be able to afford all that we are required to do?”
He said he’s committed to developing a capital improvement plan that is “realistic, sensible, ongoing and affordable.”
“Right now we are at a breaking point,” Herbst said. “The state transportation fund does not have the funds to keep going.”
Herbst did not address the need for more revenue to be part of the solution. He reiterated that the state needs to come up with a plan.
Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti said he’s been able to grow his city because of good decision making.
Lauretti, Herbst, and others spoke about reducing regulations.
At least one candidate, Rep. Prasad Srinivasan, said Connecticut has a spending problem.
“We need to tighten the belt and move this state forward,” Srinivasan said.
The other Republican candidates who participated in the Friday’s transportation forum included Eric Mastroiani, David Walker, Peter Thalheim, and Steve Obsitnik.
Back at the Legislative Office Building on Friday afternoon, Malloy was addressing the Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth and asked the 14-member panel of respected business executives to recognize the progress Connecticut has made in reducing the size of government and fixing its unfunded liabilities.
The commission has until March 1 to make its recommendations on issues regarding state revenues, tax structures, spending, debt, and administrative and organizational actions, including relevant municipal activities.
“Everywhere I go I hear businesses worried about the state’s transportation infrastructure,” Malloy said.
He said Connecticut hasn’t gotten its share of jobs as rents increase in New York City because it hasn’t fixed its transportation problems. He said the General Assembly should have approved a lockbox for transportation funds in 2015 because it would have been approved by voters in 2016, and it would make a conversation about tolls much easier.
The lockbox will appear on the ballot in November 2018, but the state may have to take action before that in order to salvage the special transportation fund.
Malloy said congestion costs the state $4.2 billion in lost time annually and the state’s future economic vitality depends upon a reliable transportation system.
The Democratic debate organized by the association will be held Jan. 19.