US DOT Looks to Future of Transportation Infrastructure, Taps College Consortium Including UConn for $14.2 Million Initiative

Connecticut’s deteriorating transportation infrastructure, and the lack of sufficient funding to make needed improvements, have been in the news often in recent months.  While not an immediate solution to pressing challenges, an announcement from the U.S. Department of Transportation may provide encouragement for those seeking longer-term remedies. The U.S. DOT has selected the University of Maine to lead the creation of a highly competitive University Transportation Center (UTC), to focus on “improving the curability and extending the life of transportation infrastructure.”

The initiative, to include the University of Connecticut and the Connecticut Department of Transportation, will be called the Transportation Infrastructure Durability Center (TIDC). TIDC aims to help save taxpayer dollars by extending the life of transportation assets, including bridges, roads and rail.

The U.S. DOT will provide as much as $14.2 million over five years for the UMaine-led coalition including UConn, University of Rhode Island, University of Massachusetts Lowell, University of Vermont, and Western New England University.

Additional partners include representatives from the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT), Vermont Agency of Transportation, Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT), Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT), and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Transportation and Development Institute.

“Along with our partners from all New England states, we look forward to leading research to extend the life of existing bridges, construct longer-lasting assets, and reduce costs for the DOT and the public,” said Dr. Habib Dagher, founding executive director of the UMaine Advanced Structures and Composites Center, and center director of the newly formed TIDC Center.

Officials explain that working with state DOTs, the new TIDC will seek to identify new materials and technologies that maximize the impact of transportation infrastructure investments. The center will work along four pathways:

  1. develop improved road and bridge monitoring and assessment tools;
  2. develop better ways to strengthen existing bridges to extend their life;
  3. use new materials and systems to build longer-lasting new bridges and accelerate construction; and
  4. use new connectivity tools to enhance asset and performance management while promoting workforce development, the release said.

According to the U.S. DOT, each University Transportation Center is a consortium of two- and four-year colleges and universities that come together to form a unique center of transportation excellence on a specific research topic.

“Together, they advance U.S. technology and expertise in the many disciplines comprising transportation through education, solutions-oriented research and technology transfer, and the exploration and sharing of cutting-edge ideas and approaches,” USDOT explains.

The U.S. DOT invests in the future of transportation through its University Transportation Centers (UTC) Program, which awards and administers grants to consortia of colleges and universities across the United States.  In the Northeast, other consortia with the same policy focus include a 9-institution UTC led by Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey and a 6-institution group led by Pennsylvania State University.

Other groupings include a 10-institution consortium led by the University of Florida devoted to reducing congestion; a 6-institution effort to promote safety led by the University of Michigan and a 8-institution initiative to improve mobility of people and goods coordinated by the University of Southern California.

The newly announced TIDC will harness the experience of 28 faculty researchers, including a team of five engineering faculty members from UConn, led by Civil and Environmental Engineering Department Professor Ramesh B. Malla, and will train 280 student researchers from all New England states. It will focus on real infrastructure needs identified by DOT partners, and prioritize extending the life of existing transportation assets to ensure cost-effectiveness.

“As a regional and national leader in transportation-related research, UMaine is prepared and ready to take on this work,” said U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine. “The creation of this new center will allow the university to expand its efforts to tackle the infrastructure problems facing communities not just in Maine, but across the country. This project has the potential to save taxpayer money and improve quality of life.”

“We are eager to partner with this program to support research that will offer new technologies and techniques that ensure taxpayer investments continue to be maximized while also extending the lifespan of our investments,” said Maine DOT Commissioner David Bernhardt.  Officials noted that member universities of the new TIDC have an extensive record of accomplishments in transportation infrastructure research, education and technology transfer.

New England’s transportation infrastructure faces unique challenges due to harsh winter weather and short construction seasons. According to ASCE, Nearly 30 percent of New England roads are rated in poor condition which, on average, costs each motorist $584 annually in extra vehicle repairs and operating costs. Nationally, driving on roads in need of repair costs U.S. motorists $120.5 billion.

Since 1987, the UTC program has advanced transportation research and technology at colleges and universities across the country. Every five years, academic institutions nationwide compete to form their region’s UTC.


Connecticut Road, Rail, Bridge Infrastructure Continues to Earn Scrutiny

Often described as “an accident waiting to happen,” the condition of Connecticut’s road, rail and bridge infrastructure continues to earn scrutiny from policy makers and the public.  In the transportation-congested Northeast corridor, the intertwining highway and rail bridges, often stacked above and below one another or alongside each other, underscore the potential consequences of infrastructure failure.  The state legislature is poised this week to devote a portion of the state sales tax in the coming years to the start of a long-term transportation infrastructure revitalization plan proposed by Gov. Malloy. “Improving safety features on Connecticut’s roads and highways would likely result in a decrease in the state’s traffic fatalities and serious crashes,” a report in December 2014 by TRIP, a nonprofit organization that researches transportation issues, pointed out.  “It is estimated that roadway features are likely a contributing factor in approximately one-third of all fatal and serious traffic crashes.”underbridge

The report noted that “highways are vitally important to continued economic development in Connecticut, particularly to the state’s tourism, farming, agriculture, manufacturing, and insurance industries. As the economy expands, creating more jobs and increasing consumer confidence, the demand for consumer and business products grows. In turn, manufacturers ship greater quantities of goods to market to meet this demand, a process that adds to truck traffic on the state’s highways and major arterial roads.”

Amtrak's ridership through the Northeast corridor, including Connecticut, is up 50 percent since 1998, boosted by the introduction of high-speed trains.  A record 11.6 million riders rode Amtrak in the corridor in fiscal year 2014, the Associated Press recently reported.  Commuter railroads that rely heavily on the rail corridor, like the Metro-North Railroad serving New York and Connecticut, also have been breaking ridership records.

That same report, however, indicated that half of the route's 1,000 bridges are around a century old. Not all are at the end of their useful lives, but at current funding levels, it would take 300 years to replace all of them, according to the Northeast Corridor Commission of transportation officials, the AP reported.

“The terrible tragedy in Philadelphia is only the most recent reminder of the tremendous backlog of basic repairs and safety upgrades we have accumulated as the result of years of underinvestment in this critical asset,’’ U.S. Senator Chris Murphy said recently.  He’s proposing that $555.8 million in the president’s budget for Northeast Corridor rail improvements to be directed at rail-safety projects only.  Murphy calls the $555.8 million a “drop in the bucket,’’ noting that the Northeast Corridor repair backlog currently stands at $21.1 billion.

railAs one example, state officials are working on a plan to replace a swinging bridge over the Norwalk River, built in 1896.  "As a piece of engineering, it's just amazing," John Bernick, assistant rail administrator for the state Department of Transportation told the AP. "But, it's certainly reached its retirement age.” The computer that operates the bridge is from the 1980’s, and replacing the bridge could cost as much as $650 million.

Last October state officials announced a plan, using state and federal funds, for the design and replacement of that century-old Walk Bridge, which malfunctioned in two separate incidents within a two week period last summer. The project is be funded with 34 percent state funds and 66 percent federal funds. Officials anticipate the design for the replacement bridge, which began last July, to be complete by 2016.  With a contract bid package complete by late 2016, construction of the replacement bridge could begin in 2017 with a completion date in 2020.

A report in 2010 from the Federal Highway Administration found that out of 4,186 bridges in Connecticut, 378 bridges were considered structurally deficient and 1,028 bridges were considered functionally obsolete.  In 2008, a report by TRIP, indicated that the average age of bridges in Connecticut was 40 years, and that 46 percent of the state’s bridges were built prior to 1960.  The organization’s updated report, in December 2014, found that 35 percent of Connecticut bridges are in need of repair, improvement or replacement. Ten percent of the state’s bridges are structurally deficient and 25 percent are functionally obsolete.

Annually, $143 billion in goods are shipped from sites in Connecticut and another $119 billion in goods are shipped to sites in Connecticut, mostly by truck, the 2014 TRIP report indicated.  Forty-one percent of Connecticut’s major locally and state-maintained roads and highways have pavements in poor condition, while an additional 41 percent of the state’s major roads are rated in mediocre or fair condition and the remaining 18 percent are rated in in good condition.Congestion

In addition, Connecticut has more than 3,400 bridges and culverts on municipally maintained roads, according to the state Department of Transportation. Construction and maintenance of these expensive structures is the responsibility of the cities and towns who own them.  The state legislature, which is scheduled to adjourn on Wednesday, is considering a proposal that would increase the available funds under the State Local Bridge Program to assist local municipalities for FY 2016 applications to $15 million and would add $10 million for FY 2017 applications.

The TRIP report concluded that “making needed improvements to Connecticut’s roads, highways and bridges could provide a significant boost to the state’s economy by creating jobs in the short term and stimulating long-term economic growth as a result of enhanced mobility and access,” warning that “without a substantial boost in federal, state and local highway funding, numerous projects…will not be able to proceed, hampering the state’s ability to improve the condition of its transportation system and to enhance economic development opportunities in the state.”



40 Years Ago, Transportation and Fiscal Austerity Highlighted Inauguration Day

On  inauguration day, Connecticut’s incoming Governor would be “commuting by train to the Capitol for the inauguration to dramatize the need for more mass transit,” local news media reported. The Governor-elect was Ella Grasso, and the year was 1975.  She took the train from her hometown of Windsor Locks into Hartford.

Four decades later, transportation will once again be center-stage on inauguration day, as Governor Dannel Malloy has indicated in the weeks prior to taking the oath of office for a second time that transportation will be a leading issue of his second term. ella train

The Wall Street Journal has reported that a White House economic analysis from July 2014 found that 41 percent of the state’s roads were in poor condition, noting that Connecticut was tied with Rhode Island with the highest percentage of poor roads.  The state is also in the midst of improving the New Haven - Springfield rail corridor, poised to launch a revitalized "Hartford line."

Grasso, according to news reports of the day, also took the opportunity “to emphasize the need for fiscal authority in the face of projected money pr1000px-seal_of_the_governor_of_connecticut.svgoblems for the state.”

Dollars and sense were also central to the first inaugural address of Governor William A. O’Neill on January 7, 1981.

Published reports indicated “that he favored cutting spending rather than increasing taxes to eliminate a deficit in this year's budget. But he said that balancing spending with existing revenues would be even harder for the fiscal year beginning July 1.”

Speaking before a joint session of the State House of Representatives and Senate, The New York Times reported that Mr. O'Neill said: ''Government at all levels faces increasingly tough decisions, finding itself forced to do more with less. It seems we have only one choice: Curb spending and control taxation.''

O’Neill, who had succeeded to the office just a week earlier upon Grasso’s resignation due to ill health, said 'To maintain a budget balance, we can raise taxes or cut spending even further,'' he said. ''I do not want to raise taxes.''

Later in his term, O’Neill would respond to the collapse of the Mianus River Bridge on I-95 in Greenwich on June 28, 19oneill83, which exposed a poor record of road and bridge maintenance in the state, with creation of a Special Transportation Fund to set aside money to maintain and repair the state's bridges.

That same year, the legislature agreed to eliminate tolls from Connecticut roads, in part due to a horrific accident in January at the Stratford tograssoll station that killed seven people and galvanized public opinion.  The state had collected tolls at 14 locations - eight on the Connecticut Turnpike between Greenwich and Plainfield, three on the Merritt and Wilbur Cross Parkways, and at three bridges in the Hartford area. The tollbooths generated $66 million a year, The New York Times reported that year.

On January 9, 1991, former U.S. Senator and newly elected Governor Lowell P. Weicker said in his inaugural address that “The people of Connecticut have sent us here to do the right thing: to face up squarely to the facts of a state in fiscal trouble.'' Describing the state as ''rudderless,'' he said ''A deficit has taken control of our lives, coloring all else as it climbs beyond comprehension, sapping our confidence, humbling our visions. The past is not worth the best of our courage and creativity. That belongs to the future. 'So let's get this deficit business done, and fast.''weicker

Although he did not propose it on day one, he would soon recommend imposition of a state income tax in Connecticut, which was approved in August 1991 by a reluctant state legislature and signed into law.  Just a few weeks later, Gov. Weicker signed legislation increasing transportation fees by $6 million, clearing the way for dozens of stalled road and bridge projects.  The New York Times reported that the $6 million” will raise the state transportation fund to $63 million” and “insure enough money to pay for road projects for the next six years.”