Hartford Courant on 25 May 2003

Bypass to Casino a Bad Idea

by Jeff Benedict

Bypass to Casino a Bad Idea

The Connecticut Department of Transportation wants to build a bypass from the Route 2A bridge over the Thames River to Foxwoods Casino. The $95 million question is why? That's how much DOT estimates it will cost to build what amounts to a four-lane driveway for the Mashantucket Pequot tribe. DOT has asked Congress to appropriate $76 million toward this project, with the state chipping in the rest. 

The DOT's priorities are upside down. Just five months ago, the Connecticut Transportation Strategy Board presented Gov. John G. Rowland and the legislature with a plan calling for a $5.5 billion investment to upgrade and improve Connecticut's road, rail, air and water transportation systems over the next 10 years. The report warned that failing to invest now will ``seriously jeopardize'' the state's economic future and force us to spend far more later, when transportation expenditures are made on a ``crisis-driven basis.'' 

Nonetheless, the governor's budget plan calls for a modest $14 million to fund TSB projects next year, most of which is planned for upgrading parking facilities at railroad stations in Bridgeport and New Haven. This paltry sum partly reflects the state's fiscal crisis. Asking Congress for a special appropriation of highway funds in tough economic times is understandable. But not if the money is going to enrich a casino by making access quicker and easier. 

Gov. Rowland's office has said that the main reason for the bypass proposal is to relieve traffic congestion. The main reason for the traffic congestion is Foxwoods. Expanding the highway to the casino will not relieve traffic. It will invite more. 

But even if a bypass would relieve traffic around Foxwoods, is that more important than congestion relief on I-95 between Bridgeport and Greenwich? That corridor is the major access route to the backbone of Connecticut's industry and business base, as well as the most heavily traveled commuter route in the state. The TSB has identified improving safety and traffic flow through Fairfield County as a top priority. 

Other priorities include enhancing the ability to move people and freight in and around Fairfield County by water and rail; and upgrading Bradley International Airport. With so little money to go around, any that can be obtained should be put toward funding these crucial initiatives, all of which were the result of public hearings and the input of experts from across the state. 

Conversely, the DOT request to Congress for $76 million -- roughly five times more than the governor is proposing for TSB projects -- goes against the recommendation of regional planning agencies and municipal officials, as well as undermines the purpose of the TSB. After more than two years of study and consultation, local and state officials recommended widening Route 2, intersection realignments and other modifications to improve traffic flow and increase safety. The bypass proposal was rejected. Residents of Preston, the town most directly impacted, went as far as passing a referendum outlawing the bypass idea. 

Nor has the DOT produced an Environmental Impact Statement to accompany this proposal. 

Connecticut legislators have been kept in the dark too. 

Sen. William Nickerson (R-Greenwich), a member of the Transportation Committee and a ranking member of the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, learned about this federal funding request when he read about it in The Courant last week. This prompted him to ask DOT Commissioner James Byrnes: ``Is this true?'' 

The Mashantucket Pequot Tribe also claims it was unaware of the request for federal funding. C'mon. If the casino doesn't want this road built, who does? 

So far the Connecticut congressional delegation has been silent on this issue. The delegation should openly oppose it. This is a bad budget request in bad fiscal times. 

And the DOT should rescind its application for the bypass funds, which amount to a subsidy for a casino sitting on sovereign land and operated by a sovereign government. 

Otherwise, the people of Connecticut will wonder why the traffic-jammed roads they drive on are less important than the one that gamblers use.