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Hartford Courant
Ilicia Balaban and Rep. David McCluskey

President-elect Barack Obama recently proposed a massive federal infrastructure plan that he likens to the New Deal and Eisenhower's historic initiative to create the interstate highway system. 

At a time when roads and bridges across the country are crumbling and public transportation systems are scrambling to keep up with booming demand, Obama and others are right to recognize the need for investments that will improve our quality of life as well as create jobs. But it is crucially important how infrastructure money gets spent. 

Connecticut must begin thinking about transportation projects regionally. It is imperative to our state's economic growth that we find ways to better connect Connecticut to the economies of New York and Boston. This includes transportation projects that will connect commuter rail, bus systems, airports and seaports. Our small state cannot continue to be isolated by inadequate transportation options.

Our transportation system is the chief source of our nation's addiction to oil, consuming two out of every three barrels, and leaving America vulnerable to volatile prices and hostile foreign regimes. Cars and trucks are the biggest end-user source of global warming pollution, contributing a third of emissions. 

Not every infrastructure dollar is equally good for the public interest. Yet states are offering Congress lists of favored projects that include hundreds of millions for more of the same types of wasteful highway construction projects that got us where we are today. 

The next administration and Congress should take a cue from the bailout plan for the auto industry by tying funds to a fundamental shift in the business model and the types of vehicles produced. Such a change must be incorporated in an infrastructure stimulus package. 

Federal transportation money should be spent only on projects that advance long-term national goals, by reducing our dependence on oil, curbing global warming pollution, alleviating congestion, improving safety and supporting healthy, sustainable communities. 

Here in Connecticut, smart transportation funding must mean finally moving ahead with the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter rail project. The project has been on the table for nearly a decade with little action taken and is essential to revitalizing the state's economy. It would generate up to $150 million in economic growth as well as 775 new jobs to help the state's economy. We have an opportunity to use federal funds for the project beginning with pre-startup service that will have trains running at least twice a day during peak travel times. 

It would also be foolish for Connecticut to squander its federal stimulus dollars on new roads and highway expansions when so much of our existing infrastructure is in need of repair. For instance, the latest national bridge inventory listed 358 structurally deficient bridges in Connecticut. These should be put in good repair before new highways or lane-widening are contemplated.

Far-sighted investments also generate more jobs. Studies show public transportation creates 19 percent more jobs than building new roads and highways, and road repair creates 9 percent more jobs. 

The economic recovery package should also include operating assistance for the state Department of Transportation. Operating support would quickly put people to work and would help the department accommodate record demand for services.

To ensure accountability, all states' transportation departments should report back on the effectiveness of their spending relative to job creation, energy security, carbon dioxide emissions and vehicle miles traveled. Perhaps the second installment of a two-year funding package would be allocated according to how well states advance national goals with the first installment.

The incoming administration and the next Congress have a tremendous opportunity to turn the economy around by putting millions to work rebuilding and reshaping our country. A bad package could do more harm than good, but a good package could help us meet many of America's most important challenges and bring a more sustainable 21st-century transportation future.

Ilicia J. Balaban is an advocate for the Connecticut Public Interest Research Group.

State Rep. David McCluskey, D-West Hartford, is the incoming deputy speaker, former Transportation Bonding Committee co-chairman and a longtime Transportation Committee member. 

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