HBJ: N. England report calls for gas heating, road tolls
As originally appearing in The Hartford Business Journal

By Brad Kane

Connecticut and other New England states must embrace natural gas for heat and tolls to get more drivers off the road and onto mass transit, both aimed at curbing energy costs and boosting infrastructure to make the region more competitive, a new report says.

Regional business group New England Council and accounting firm Deloitte released a smart-infrastructure study Tuesday calling for New England states to convert more homes and businesses to gas heating and add more tolling to major highways and population centers, among many other recommendations.

The study, which the organizations called an investment for growth and prosperity in the region, urges companies and policymakers to exploit New England’s natural advantages, better connect business supply networks and cities, fund education and training to meet industries’ workforce needs, and develop new creative financing options for infrastructure improvements, as the old methods are not covering rising costs.

Among the states’ natural advantages are lower cost regions with large industry clusters including the I-91 corridor through Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont; the Quiet Corner/Blackstone Valley corridor in Connecticut and Rhode Island; and the down east corridor in Maine and New Hampshire. While these regions offer competitive cost for company’s to produce highly engineered projects, the corridors suffer from high energy costs, which hurts corporate competitiveness.

To help cut these energy costs, the study recommends the six New England states maintain their nuclear power sites in addition to developing an enhanced natural gas distribution and storage infrastructure for business and home heating. The plan is similar to Connecticut’s comprehensive energy strategy, revealed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on Oct. 5, calling for a $6.7 billion expansion of Connecticut’s natural gas system.

The study also suggests New England better connect its business supply networks and population centers with each other and the emerging world economy. A main recommendation called for putting tolls on critical roadways to encourage motorists to use public transportation and fund needed roadway improvements.

The tolling option recommendations include putting toll-only lanes on I-95, I-91, and I-93 or simply charge motorists for entering a metropolitan area such as Boston, Hartford, and Providence. The study then called for enhanced rail and rapid bus service in the region.

The suggestion of tolls immediately riled up political controversy in Connecticut, where similar proposals have advanced into the General Assembly but not into law.

“Tolls on I-91 and a fee to enter Hartford would wreak havoc on motorists, our capitol city, and the north-central Connecticut towns that I represent,” said State. Sen. John A. Kissel (R-Enfield). “As I have successfully done with prior toll proposals, I will fight to get these preposterous ideas tied up in a permanent traffic jam. Making driving miserable in order to get people to take non-existent mass transit is social engineering at its worst.”

To connect New England to the emerging global economy, the study recommends the region’s major airport such as Boston Logan and Bradley International in Windsor Locks encourage direct flights to economies in Brazil, China, and India through low-priced leasing agreements to motivate the airlines to put in the flights.

The study calls on businesses to develop a new apprenticeship model. The proposal not only asks businesses and industried to fund the development of their specific workforce needs at local technical high schools and community colleges, but the recommendation says the businesses should pay these students and trainees as they learn on-the-job skills.

A major problem for New England in the future will be unfunded infrastructure improvements, particularly roads and bridges, the study says. The infrastructure is aging, and the traditional funding mechanisms such as the gas tax aren’t meeting the increasing costs. The study suggests tolls, charging motorists for miles traveled, developing infrastructure banks, and seek public-private partnerships.

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