The following article was published in edited form as an Op-Ed piece in Greenwich Time, a newspaper serving Greenwich, CT.
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The chambers of commerce of several southwestern Connecticut towns have urged the state to add an additional continuous lane to Interstate Route I-95 in both directions from the state line to New Haven. By calling for a widening of the highway, the chambers are at variance with other bodies in southwestern Connecticut that have been studying the transportation problems of the region and ignore the generally-accepted wisdom that you cannot build your way out of congestion.
The chambers rightly link the region’s economic vitality with improvement in its transportation system. This linkage is not new but was graphically shown in a report, called the Gallis Report, commissioned in 1999 by a group representing business interests across Connecticut. That report identified severe congestion in the I-95 corridor as a block to access by the state to the New York metro area and beyond.
The state responded by establishing a two-tier structure to develop a strategy to address the problem, a statewide body, known as the Transportation Strategy Board, and five regional bodies. The regional body representing southwestern Connecticut, the Coastal Corridor Transportation Investment Area (CCTIA), developed a Plan to address the transportation needs of region.
The issues are complex, and the CCTIA Plan contains no less than 150 recommendations. Expanding I-95 is not one of them. On the contrary, it opposes expanding I-95 “unless and until all reasonable alternative modes of transportation and strategies have been explored and put in place”.
The chambers appear not to have considered the following questions:
Would Construction of Additional Lanes Contribute to Congestion? Of course it would. As users of limited access highways know all too well, work on a highway creates both delays and dangerous driving conditions. Think about the delays and increased number of accidents on I-95 in Darien while breakdown lanes were constructed in the early 2000’s. Imagine that situation existing along I-95 all the way to New Haven during the much longer period that would be required to add a continuous lane in each direction.
How Long Would Any Reduction in Congestion Last? If adding capacity to I-95 resulted in a lasting reduction in congestion, a temporary increase in congestion during construction might be worthwhile. But those areas that have tried to use added road capacity as an antidote to congestion have found that it doesn’t work, at least not for long. Why? Because additional road capacity induces additional traffic.
John DiStephano, the mayor of New Haven, has argued that congestion on a stretch of I-95 east of New Haven would be back to present levels just three years after the completion of a proposed widening of the highway there. What then? Do it again? How often should we endure the inconvenience of a major construction project on I-95 for a short-lived fix?
Would Increased Traffic on I-95 Affect Air Quality? Fairfield County is a severe non-attainment area under the standards set by federal clean air laws. While other factors contribute to the unsatisfactory air that we breathe, vehicle emissions are a major contributor. Adding to the number of vehicles on I-95 would add to the problem.
How Would a Widening Affect the Adjoining Communities? Widening of I-95 would require the taking of additional land along the right of way. While in some areas there is sufficient land, this is not so in many other areas. A few examples from Greenwich: An additional swath of Bruce Park would be needed. The size of the Island Beach and Horseneck parking lots at Greenwich Station would be reduced. Homes in the vicinity of Exit 5 would be lost.
What Can We Do? While Connecticut is particularly dependent on automobiles and trucks, highway congestion is a national, not just a local, phenomenon. The chambers are correct in pointing out that even with increased use of public transportation and rail freight, as has been achieved in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, we will still experience congestion.
But we can offer people and goods choices – alternative ways to travel. Southwestern Connecticut is fortunate to have a rail system in place, but it is underutilized as a mode for people and used hardly at all for freight. Similarly, Long Island Sound is underutilized for the movement of freight and is not used for the movement of people. Bus transit, bicycling and walking can make greater contributions to the transportation mix.
To encourage people and goods to use underutilized modes, we must create an incentive not to use I-95, which is over-utilized. At present, use of I-95 is free. A system of road pricing with a higher toll at peak periods has successfully limited congestion in many places both in the U.S. and abroad. Technology similar to that used by EZ Pass permits tolls to be collected at highway speeds without toll plazas.
How Will Improvements Be Paid For? The single most important obstacle to upgrading the Connecticut’s transportation infrastructure is the lack of funding. The state is faced with the need to find over $1 billion to pay for the replacement of Metro-North’s aging fleet. What is needed is not simply replacement of the fleet but improved commuter rail service which will require a larger fleet. A larger fleet, in turn, will require additional storage and maintenance facilities as well as increased parking facilities at all stations to enable users to access the system. That will cost still more.
Historically, the state has relied heavily on federal funding to cover transportation expenditures, and it is faced with a possible reduction in funding under proposed re-enactment of the federal transportation funding laws. The most appropriate revenue sources would be those derived from users of our transportation infrastructure, such as an increase in the gas tax or reintroduction of tolls, but these are politically unpopular.
The cost of widening I-95 would be enormous, far more than the chambers believe would be required. If they wish to see an improvement in our transportation system, the chambers must first address where the money will come from. By urging a widening without acknowledging the financial realities, they have done little more than create a short wish list.