Photo: Peter Hvizdak / Hearst Connecticut Media
Gov. Ned Lamont has released a transportation plan that sets up the defining fight of his first year in Hartford. The plan authorizes tolls on state highways and dedicates the revenue, estimated at $800 million per year, to nine enumerated highway projects. It also directs the Connecticut Department of Transportation to start work on several other road and rail projects.
Most of the toll fund will likely be squandered. In March, ConnDOT gave the Yankee Institute, a think tank in Hartford, price estimates for projects in an earlier version of Lamont’s plan. Almost without exception, ConnDOT’s costs are massively inflated, sometimes 10 times or more those of similar projects elsewhere.
The most expensive project in the plan is a renovation of the Mixmaster interchange between Interstate 84 and Route 8 in Waterbury. Urban freeway interchange upgrades typically cost a few hundred million dollars. An in-progress reconfiguration of a major interchange in Houston, for example, is estimated at $300 million; the far more complex Dallas Horseshoe Project cost only $798 million and included 73 new lane-miles of freeway and 37 bridges. But ConnDOT wants $7 billion for the Mixmaster, or almost nine Horseshoe Projects — even though the Mixmaster handles much less traffic and has far simpler traffic patterns.
The Mixmaster is not the only overpriced road project on the state’s wish list. ConnDOT also plans to spend $4 billion to upgrade the interchange between I-84 and I-91 in Hartford, which is surrounded mostly by vacant lots and low-value industrial land, and $4.3 billion to $5.3 billion to replace a viaduct carrying I-84 through Hartford with a two-mile open trench. Meanwhile, for less than $4 billion, Sweden is building a 13-mile freeway bypass of Stockholm, including 11 miles of tunnel and three underground interchanges. And ConnDOT’s plans (though not Lamont’s proposal) include an upgrade of the Y interchange of I-95 and I-395 for $900 million. For about $260 million in today’s money, California widened the much busier Y interchange of I-5 and I-405 in suburban Orange County in the 1990s; the new freeway has 26 lanes at its widest point.
Even simple projects such as freeway widenings cost far too much. The Federal Highway Administration estimates that adding one lane to a rural freeway in flat terrain should cost $1.923 million per mile in 2012 dollars, or about $2.1 million today. ConnDOT, though, plans to spend $770 million to widen 11 miles of I-95 through rural New London County. If the widening adds one lane in each direction, it will cost $35 million per lane-mile, 16 times the typical cost. Another project to add one northbound lane to I-95 from Stamford to Fairfield would cost $1.257 billion, or $113 million per lane-mile, even though ConnDOT already owns the necessary land.
Rail projects in Connecticut also have exorbitant costs. The governor’s plans call for two new stations on the Hartford Line and a Metro-North station on Barnum Avenue in East Bridgeport. ConnDOT estimates that the Hartford Line stations will cost $340 million in total, or about $170 million each; the Barnum station is estimated at $300 million (the high cost stemming partially from accommodating long-distance trains, in case Amtrak wants two Bridgeport stops). Typical commuter rail stations in Berlin, Germany, meanwhile, cost about $11 million in the suburbs — about one-fifteenth the average cost of the Hartford Line stations — and $22 million in the city center. The cost of the Barnum station, in fact, could almost pay for three fully underground subway stations in Paris. ConnDOT also plans to replace three drawbridges on the New Haven Line, with a total length of half a mile, for $4 billion—the same cost as the three-mile Tappan Zee Bridge replacement, which was itself very expensive compared to bridges in Europe.
It is hard to imagine a good reason for ConnDOT’s profligacy. The agency’s prices suggest, at the very least, that it has not exercised proper oversight of its contractors. Connecticut taxpayers and motorists should not subsidize such dysfunction. State legislators should investigate ConnDOT’s construction practices, and they should not fund any transportation projects beyond the most urgent without reducing construction costs to acceptable levels.
Connor Harris (Twitter: @cmhrrs) is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute.