Connecticut roads need new blacktop; O'Neill asks citizens to foot the bill

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When Gov. William A. O'Neill (D) submitted his proposal for next year's budget to the Connecticut legislature yesterday, nearly 10 percent was earmarked to repair the state's roads and bridges.

The $342 million proposed for next year's transportation budget is part of a all its bridges.

The goals of his proposal have been embraced by Republicans and Democrats alike. But the price tag, and the higher gas taxes and fees the governor seeks to finance the plan, have inspired the House Republican caucus to propose a plan of its own.

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According to Anthony V. Milano, secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, the governor's proposal will accelerate the repair rate for the state's bridges. Repairs to the 520 bridges currently rated in ''fair to poor'' condition will be under way by 1987. Without the acceleration, work on some of those bridges would not begin until 1992.

In addition, 5,000 miles of roads will be repaved during the next 10 years - in effect, repaving the state, Mr. Milano says. The program includes money to beef up mass transit in Hartford, Bridgeport, and New Haven and to improve facilities at five general-aviation airports. Eventually, dams, waterways, sewers, and public buildings will be included.

Much of the $5.5 billion will come from the federal government. But the state must come up with more than $2 billion. The governor says the money will come through an increased gasoline tax, higher vehicle registration and license fees, and state borrowing.

The gasoline tax in Connecticut, already among the highest in the nation, would be increased 3 cents in July to 17 cents a gallon. By 1994, it would rise to 24 cents a gallon.

However, Secretary Milano says these increases are not excessive. There is a great deal of public concern about the safety of the infrastructure, he says. The tragic collapse of the Mianus Bridge last June only served to raise this level of concern.

Connecticut motorists will be willing to foot the bill for such improvements, he says. And, the average motorist will pay less than $25 more a year, he says.

But a key element to winning public support is to let the public know its money is being well spent, Milano says. The transportation package includes a dedicated fund, which means all money produced from motor vehicle-related uses will go straight into the transportation fund. Currently, Milano says, this money goes into the state's general fund.

Milano says, ''There is not any question that if you want to get these repairs done, it's going to cost. The alternative is transportation systems which are in poor condition. That is certainly far worse.''

Edward J. Stockton, a private consultant who worked on the plan, says: ''The public is not eager to have taxes raised. But if they feel that all the money is going to go to fixing up roads and bridges, they will support it.''

And from an economic point of view, he says, ''the spinoff of the $3 billion spent by the federal government will be enormous.'' Governor O'Neill says the entire package will provide 40,000 new jobs in the state.

''We're making an enormous investment,'' says Mr. Stockton. And in doing so, ''we're making a tremendous opportunity out of a big, giant problem.''

Rep. R.E. VanNorstrand (R), House minority leader, says he and other Republicans endorse the goals of O'Neill's proposal, but not the means. The House Republican caucus has come up with its own infrastructure plan.

''Our plan will do everything the governor's plan does - pave the same roads, repair the bridges - without new taxes,'' Representative VanNorstrand says.

The Republicans are proposing five-year, short-term bonds to meet much of the financial need. VanNorstrand also suggests offering state residents the opportunity to invest in the projects.

He proposes offering state bonds to individual investors, ''similar to 1940s' war bonds. The citizens are aware of the problems and will invest to help the state.'' Over the course of 10 years, he says, ''our program will save the state

A bipartisan task force, formed by Governor O'Neill, has been examining the infrastructure problems in Connecticut since last April. Many of the group's recommendations are included in the governor's budget request.

Even so, some observers here say the transporation package might become a partisan issue in this election year.

But O'Neill disagrees, even though a large amount of money is involved. ''I think there will be a unified effort in this General Assembly to adopt my proposal, if not in total, at least in part.''

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