Local municipal leaders will push state legislators to prioritize $34 million in borrowing to improve Metro-North Railroad's New Canaan Branch to expand capacity, a project they said is an important project to assure the region's attractiveness to workers.
New Canaan First Selectman Rob Mallozzi told legislators on Tuesday morning the improvements identified in the New Canaan/Waterbury Branch Line Feasibility and Needs study are the next logical step in a strategy to encourage younger workers, who want strong transit systems, to settle in Fairfield County.
The project includes construction of a passing siding in Springdale to allow more trains to run on the branch line, and extending platforms at its New Canaan, Springdale and Talmadge Hill stations to reduce boarding times.
"I think we need to show the governor and others a success story and that this type of transit-oriented design will bring more people into the region and put more riders on the rails," Mallozzi said. "We know people want reliable and unfettered access to New York City so they can make money and provide for their families and we don't want to see anything happen to that."
The state legislators listened to Mallozzi and other chief elected officials from the South Western Regional Planning Organization share their legislative goals for transit funding and development at the organization's annual legislative breakfast at Norwalk City Hall on Tuesday.
In addition to seeking funding for New Canaan Line improvements, the group also wants a less-muddled budgeting process for funding regional bus service, a less bureaucratic and streamlined process for approving local bridge repair projects, and recalibration of the state's affordable housing law to limit developers' ability of to use it for profit.
Greenwich Town Planner Diane Fox said the law should be amended to dictate that affordable housing be set aside for applicants making no more than 60 percent of the state's, rather than area's median income. Using the lower state figure in Fairfield County will preserve the housing for lower-earning families, she said.
"If you use more than 60 percent of the state median income, the housing is often not available for the population you want to be served," Fox said.
The affordable housing law should also be adjusted to give indemnity to municipalities sued by developers whose proposals are rejected if the municipalities have approved plans to meet the state mandate that 10 percent of housing stock be affordable, Darien First Selectman Jayme Stevenson said.
Without some kind of legal protection, developers have grown accustomed to having local zoning rejections overturned by courts, giving developers enormous leeway to build high density developments, she said.
"In the last year, the town of Darien has spent $1 million in fighting court cases with these profit seeking developers and the state courts have used minimum zoning requirements to disregard our arguments," Stevenson said.
Wilton First Selectman Bill Brennan told legislators that local public works departments could complete local bridge projects at less cost and more quickly if the state transportation department's approval process was simplified.
For the past several years, attempts to replace the Bald Hill Road bridge have been sidetracked by working out a correct estimate cost and other needed approvals.
"I hope we can get the support for legislation to end the bureaucratic stall on these bridges," Brennan said.
Norwalk Transit District Administrator Louis Schulman said he hopes legislators will work to assure at least stable funding for the 2013 fiscal year in order for bus transit to maintain service levels and continue to help eliminate uncertainty about whether funding will be provided for service boosts.
At his agency, money for service boosts is often appropriated in the spring, just months from the end of the fiscal year, making it difficult to plan what service expansions to pursue, he said.
"We'd like to know as close to the onset of the fiscal year what our actual budget will be," Schulman said.
State Sen. Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich, said how the state funds transportation should be focused, as the Department of Transportation is facing a wide gap between available funding and infrastructure needs due to the gradual decline of petroleum gross receipts tax revenue and other sources of money to support transit.
"The DOT is flat out of money and won't be able to fund anything new unless something fundamentally changes," Frantz said.
State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, said it is important for the General Assembly to remain focused on mass transit, such as railroad, as an area where borrowing is justified due to expected benefits in increasing livability, shortening commutes, and enabling the founding of more businesses.
"It's clear that we need a vision and to find dedicated sources of funding for this," Steinberg said. "We have an opportunity to look at transit funding as an economic driver."
U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-Greenwich, said ongoing negotiations between Republicans and Democrats to compromise on a spending and tax plans for 2013 must be completed before Congress addresses long-term plans to fund infrastructure upgrades through the states.
Himes said he expects the federal government will still be able to provide states assistance on larger highway, transit and infrastructure in the coming 2013-15 session.
"I think from a financial standpoint, we are going to navigate the resource issue, not gracefully but in a way that values infrastructure," he said.