Jonathan L. Wharton

It’s now June and our General Assembly remains unsure about two critical areas of budgeting: commuter rail and public education. They are essential resources for state growth and Connecticut’s future. Ever since February, there have been concerns surrounding the budgetary hole that federal Covid funding financed. But like clockwork, our state legislature is once again waiting until the last minute (as June 7 is the last day of session) and two years from now in resolving these financial issues. 

Thankfully, Connecticut media has been centering much of their attention on Metro-North cuts and specifically reducing train service. Governor Ned Lamont’s budgetary staff are targeting the transit system’s busiest New Haven Line because fewer passengers are returning to the trains. Even the beleaguered Shore Line East line faces a further reduction, which is reportedly going to bring departures down to about half that of pre-pandemic service.

With fewer passengers returning to office jobs in Connecticut and New York because of this “work from home” era, public transit is experiencing lessened ridership. But Connecticut is also facing worsening traffic in recent years. It’s no secret that our already busy Merritt Parkway and I-95 appear to have rush-hour earlier in the afternoon and traffic has worsened on the weekends. Or, while a New Jersey friend visiting me last week compared tri-state area roadways, he said “the worst roads I’ve encountered have been in Nutmegland.” It took him over an hour to get through Fairfield County at 1 p.m.

Public transit, especially commuter rail, is critical for relieving traffic congestion and attracting economic development. In fact, Lamont and his supporters have been emphasizing transit-oriented development by encouraging residential and commercial development around transit hubs. But with fewer trains, more traffic, and more growth, the state will face a congested and uncertain future.

Another area of uncertainty is public education in Connecticut – specifically, its financing. With a merger of the state’s community college system underway and student under-enrollment (into future years), our public higher education system is on the cusp of troubling times. And with lessened Covid funding for the coming fiscal year, our General Assembly will likely address a temporary shortfall in funding for the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system and the University of Connecticut. But the bigger concern will be the biennial budget after 2024, as public financing and student enrollment is forecasted to continue decreasing.

Even state funding for public elementary and secondary schools is not immune to the General Assembly’s budgeting. With our property tax-reliant financing process, Connecticut’s municipal aid from state to local schools has been fraught with state financing woes and a possible exodus of teachers.

But to grow our state’s economy as well as attract new residents – and to retain current residents – education and transit are essential investments. While Lamont and his budgeteers continue to suggest stern cuts, our General Assembly has been toeing the line and falling for the fiscal “guardrails” rhetoric. Our state economy has been growing – to some degree – along with a recent surplus. The state’s emergency reserve fund has also experienced a sizeable increase. If we were in a problematic market or troubled state economy, it would be concerning to cut education and transit. But during an era of potential growth and development, these areas should hardly be impacted.

If Connecticut is to have a viable future, state officials – lawmakers in particular – must prioritize public transit and public education. They are vital resources, especially for young residents and empty nesters to remain here. There are only a few days left before the end of the legislative session, but we cannot allow elected and appointed leaders to curtail Connecticut’s future by limiting education and public transit funding.

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D., is an associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

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