Courtesy of CT-N
Charles Brown, a self-proclaimed street level researcher from Rutgers University, gave the keynote. (Courtesy of CT-N)

NEW HAVEN, CT – Advocates for a transportation system that includes more electric vehicles, fewer overall cars, more bikes, a more sophisticated rail system, and lower auto emissions – among other strategies – got together in New Haven Tuesday to push their initiatives.

The 2nd annual Northeast Multimodal and Transit Summit was held at the New Haven Lawn Club just a few days before legislators are expected to hold lengthy discussions on a couple of different transportation plans: CT2030, the latest plan being proposed by Gov. Ned Lamont, and the competing plan called FASTR CT being offered by state Senate Republicans.

The theme of this year’s summit is “Sustainable, Survivable, and Smart – Transportation for the Next Generations.” The plans and budget for infrastructure investment over the next 10 years will set the framework for the state’s transportation trajectory that will last decades beyond 2030.

The specter of the escalating climate crisis is now expected to rear its head within the lifetimes of most Connecticut residents. The state’s transportation and land-use plans must be vetted for their long-term environmental impacts and contributions to greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2018, the state legislature set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by the year 2030 from a 2001 benchmark. The state’s competing draft transportation plans – each of which would increase interstate and state route capacity by adding lanes – represent a conflict with the emission reduction goals set in 2018.

According to cleaner transit advocates, the well-studied concept of induced demand shows that congestion reduction benefits are often temporary and that increased driving trips, combined with sprawling rural development, result in both more driving trips and a speedy return to congested traffic. Further, those same advocates claim that instead of chasing unsustainable interstate expansion models of development, successful cities and regions are implementing transportation demand management approaches that increase transit ridership, carpooling, telecommuting, and spur transit-oriented housing development near employment centers and high-frequency transit hubs.

“Transportation is a civil rights issue,” said Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, who is co-chair of the legislatures Transportation Committee, at the Tuesday session.

Courtesy of CT-N
Rep. Roland Lemar (Courtesy of CT-N)

Lemar, who has spent the past few years trying to build support for a tolling system on the state’s highways, pushed the conversation away from tolls and toward the overall status of the state’s highways.

“We are struggling to replace an aging infrastructure,” Lemar told the audience. “We have struggled with lack of investment and limited vision. We have allowed the highway system to crumble.”

Lemar added: “We are now at that moment. We also have allowed Metro-North to suffer from limited access and limited vision.”

He also said that “a conversation about just repairing and making trains a little bit faster, repairing bridges across the state,” is not enough.

“It is time for those folks in this room to lead – to find an alternate that doesn’t include piling everyone into a car,” Lemar said. “We need to build transit options for our communities.”

In October, the Transport Hartford Academy widely distributed the statewide CT’s Transportation Future Survey. In that survey, 87% of the respondents felt that unchecked climate change would be either “Very Serious” or “Catastrophic.” The top three items that respondents supported as strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector were:

• Improving existing public transportation including buses, trains, and dial-a-ride (92% support);

• Expanding/improving sidewalks and bike lanes to provide safe alternatives to driving (91% support);

• Expanding public transportation and rail to people and places not yet served (88% support).

Tuesday’s summit included 12 breakout sessions in Yale’s Kroon Hall with over 60 expert speakers on topics ranging from bus transit and rail to walking and biking, and federal legislation and funding. The Transportation Future survey results were discussed in an afternoon session titled, “Greenhouse Gas Emissions and the Transportation Sector, the Elephant in the Room.”

The sessions were preceded by a luncheon at the New Haven Lawn Club during which nationally renowned plenary speaker Charles Brown, a self-proclaimed street level researcher from Rutgers University, gave the keynote. His talk focused, primarily on advocates for cleaner transportation to make sure their plans, especially in bigger cities, ensured that minorities, weren’t left behind.

Last week, House Democrats told Lamont that car tolls – a plan preferred by Lamont – were off the table.

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz and House Majority Leader Matt Ritter asked Lamont to consider truck-only tolls on 12 of the 14 bridges that are part of the governor’s transportation plan.

House leadership would eliminate the tolls on Route 9 and the Wilbur Cross and Merritt Parkways.

Lamont had campaigned on truck-only tolls only to shift his position shortly after being sworn into office, saying trucks alone would not raise enough revenue to solve the problem.

Lamont said he’s recommending that all caucuses be prepared to bring their proposals to a meeting in his office as soon as possible.

The tolls would create a revenue stream that would be used to back low-interest loans from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Build America Bureau.

Under the proposal, truck-only tolling rates would be similar to rates in New York. The Connecticut Department of Transportation has estimated that truck-only tolls could raise about $150 million a year.

Aresimowicz and Ritter said the Senate Republican plan, which excludes tolls, is a non-starter because it would remove about $1.6 billion from the Rainy Day Fund.

Amy McClean Salls, a Senior Policy Advocate and Connecticut Director at the Acadia Center, agreed with Lemar that the time is now to take bold steps to make Connecticut highways cleaner and easier to drive.

She said using more EVs and improving rail and bike lanes were “hard, extraordinary and scary,” but that the time has come.

Victoria Hackett, Deputy Commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), chimed in that Connecticut needs to get serious about meeting its ridesharing and emission goals.