May 1, 2008 * MAY IS NATIONAL BICYCLE MONTH*
By Ken Krayeske • 6:45 PM EST
Gov. M. Jodi Rell can make all the promises she wants about reforming the Connecticut Department of Transportation.
She can call for a commission to study the traffic problems. She and her chief of staff Lisa Moody can offer Arizona transit exec Joseph F. Marie as ConnDOT commissioner.
Rell can promise to cleave the agency into two new agencies. She can hire 200 new DOT staffers. But nothing will change as long as the DOT lives on the Berlin Turnpike.
If Connecticut Department of Transportation employees could walk, bike, bus, train or drive to work, they would think differently about highways. The building you inhabit shapes your thoughts. Architecture is mental structure.
Italians lounge in stucco villas to bask in the Mediterranean sun. Eskimos huddle in igloos to hide from Artic winters. ConnDOT paves highways to drive to work across rolling Connecticut farmland.
Therefore, the best way to turn ConnDOT around is to sell or raze its headquarters on the Berlin Turnpike and move ConnDOT HQ to downtown Hartford and have its staffers move with it.
Indicative of DOT culture is the fact that the largest supporter of bicycling in the state government is the Department of Environmental Protection, which has several staffers sitting on the board of directors of the Central Connecticut Bicycle Alliance (an organization I actively support).
Getting a DOT staffer to talk bicycling or pedestrianism is like, well, being stuck in traffic. Yet enthusiasm for bicycling flows like a river from DEP. DEP gets it. DEP lives downtown. DOT doesn’t get it. DOT should live downtown.
ConnDOT added 75 engineers, 81 engineering and construction inspectors, and 16 staffers for the CHAMP motorist assistance program since Rell pledged the budget spots in February 2007, according to DOT Spokesman Judd Everhardt.
Everhardt and I mostly traded messages, so I couldn’t press him for attrition rates. But as if conceding a point, Everhardt e-mailed me this February 2008 quote from then-acting Commissioner Emil Frankel:
"It's interesting to note that when I arrived at the DOT in 1991, there were more than 5,000 employees and when I left in 1995, the Department had 4,233 employees," Frankel said in a speech. "Today the number is almost 1,000 lower than that, and stands at 3,244."
And I bet every single one of those survivors of the Rowland budget ax at ConnDOT drives to work. I doubt any of them live in the post-agricultural subdivisions behind the Berlin Turnpike.
Even if some ConnDOTters bought a new single-family residence in the newly-advertised Deming Farm subdivision on Deming Road, within walking distance to ConnDOT, they couldn’t walk, because no pedestrian access exists on the Berlin Turnpike.
That's the thing about facilities. If we only make highways, we only think about cars. Considering that Gov. Rell catches the Brookfield-to-Hartford state police shuttle on a daily basis, I wouldn’t expect more from ConnDOT. But could we call it a carpool?
Greenwashing would stretch the truth less than the whole woops-I-couldn’t-have-foreseen-a-$500-million-cost-overrun-that-we-were-told-about-two-years-ago guffaw.
Rell’s work on the latest DOT fiasco – the slippery price tag on the New Haven project to build a railway yard for new MetroNorth train cars - comes straight out of Condi Rice's "Who would fly a plane into a building?" playbook.
But it is indicative of Rell's leadership at ConnDOT, where the disingenuous political posturing like mea culpas to legislators distract from the maddening traffic jams and ignored transit solutions.
Suppose with great fanfare, Gov. Rell forswore her daily 120-miles round trip chauffer-driven commute and announced a move to Hartford, and with her, she was bringing DOT downtown?
"My new Livable Cities and Global Warming initiative of tax breaks to those who live and work in cities begins with me," she'll say as she stands in a meadow on Deming Road.
"The benefits of people moving downtown and preserving this farmland and getting cars off the highway far outweighs the minimal costs of this policy," she'll pronounce, gesturing grandly at the green grass growing.
Her budget chief Bob Genuario can look smart again by explaining how we will amortize the cost of the tax breaks over two decades on the back of a smaller highway budget, and fewer educational grants to Hartford and other cities because of growing grand lists.
The concrete application of a policy encouraging urban living begins when DOT leases empty office space in central Hartford, like maybe the Connecticut Mutual Insurance Company building.
Simultaneously, the state plans and executes an urban mixed-use development for DOT and its employees consistent with Green City principles.
The legislature joins the fun with low-cost loans to rehabilitate and purchase properties.
The middle class entrance into the housing market improves the schools and we reduce our carbon footprint. More neighborhood watches. More biking and walking. Blight abates. Crime lessens. An economy returns to Hartford.
Understanding not everyone can pick up and move immediately, the empathetic Governor tells her new commissioner Joseph F. Marie to work with the unions, like the Connecticut State Employees Association.
CSEA represents about a third of ConnDOT employees, including engineers, planners and property people, according to CSEA president Bob Rinker.
Rinker is a reasonable man, as evidenced by the fact that he once contracted me to do freelance research for CSEA. But seriously, he understands some ConnDOT dilemmas, like the male domination of the workforce.
Thus, ConnDOT is not a family friendly work place, Rinker said. He wants more telecommuting, more flexible hours, more ways for people to balance family with work.
Rinker sees Rell in a crisis management mode at ConnDOT, like with the drain problems on I-84 in Cheshire. The morale of ConnDOT employees suffers for the lack of leadership.
"We need a vision instead of deferred maintenance," Rinker said. His engineers and planners can handle problems, he said. "We need someone to say we want to get from Hartford to New York and do it in 10 years. We need visionary thinking."
Okay, Bob, and Mr. Joseph F. Marie, here's to dreaming: We want 100,000 new people to move into Hartford, and we want them to live where I-84 currently rips across Asylum Hill. And we have to do it in 10 years.