NEWINGTON – When you enter the state Department of Transportation headquarters on the Berlin Turnpike, the first thing you will see is a memorial dedicated to 37 DOT workers killed in the line of duty on the state’s roads and highways.
Transportation Commissioner Garrett Eucalitto, who has been in the job since January 2023, also has a smaller memorial in his own office with the names of the more than three dozen workers killed on the state’s highways.
Safety, Eucalitto told CT Examiner, is his highest priority.
That’s why, the department has undertaken several safety initiatives aimed at curbing the numbers of accidents and fatalities on highways and roads in the state, said Eucalitto. Those measures include a recent awareness and education campaign on safe driving, and DOT-sponsored measures including flashing lights triggered when a driver enters an on or off ramp traveling in the wrong direction.
“Our top priority is safety,” Eucalitto said this week.
Eucalitto also offered answers to a wide range of questions in his Newington offices with CT Examiner on Thursday afternoon, ranging from high-speed rail to transit oriented development.
Prior to being named commissioner, Eucalitto served as deputy commissioner with the department, a position he held from January 2020 to January 2023. Earlier Eucalitto served as the transportation program director for the National Governors Association in Washington, D.C., where he was responsible for assisting the nation’s governors in advancing their transportation policy objectives.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CT Examiner: What is your number one transportation-related priority in 2024?
Garrett Eucalitto: Our top priority is safety; safety for the DOT employees and safety for the traveling public. That is what we wake up every day to focus on.
CTEx: Does the CTDOT have any red lines, or a preferred outcome for Amtrak’s recent launch of the New Haven to Providence Capacity Planning Study?
Eucalitto: Red lines are preferred outcomes. No, I mean that’s the whole point of a study – to look at what is on the table and what the constraints are. It’s between FRA [Federal Railroad Administration] and Amtrak, but we are going to be a party to it, if I raise it.
CTEx: Do you think some version of the Kenyon to Old Saybrook bypass could be revived or is still viable for improving rail service east of New Haven?
Eucalitto: I’m not aware of that one, but I do know that the current arrangement of our railroad on the coast is difficult given its proximity to the shore, and the significant curves that result in a railroad that is very inefficient. It’s antiquated; so, I think, we need to look at what options are there to use our existing right of way to improve rail service throughout the Northeast Corridor.
CTEx: Is high speed rail between Hartford and Providence on the table?
Eucalitto: No, I doubt it. I don’t think that is reasonable or practical. I don’t think it’s practical to build an entirely new structure in an area where no rail exists today. I think what the Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak data [shows] is they had an initial market study that identified there is no significant demand between Hartford and Providence. The demand exists there on the coastal territory.
CTEx: What are the major challenges for your department to implement the transportation carbon budget for the state signed into law by Gov. Ned Lamont last session and how would that carbon budget affect the daily life of an average person in Connecticut?
Eucalitto: So, I think for the transportation carbon budget we have until 2030, so we have not done that yet. What we did do, though, is the Federal Highway Administration promulgated a rule for us to set new performance measures for greenhouse gasses. We just submitted ours yesterday. Our goal is a little over a 9 percent reduction over the next several years. We think that is a very optimistic goal. There are, however, things that are outside our ability to achieve those reduction targets. We identified that we need to focus on land use changes in order to achieve that reduction target.
CTEx: Road rage, speeding and seeming lawlessness, at times, on Connecticut’s roads since the pandemic has been an important issue for legislators, and many drivers. Is there concern that current driving habits and traffic enforcement practice pose a growing threat to the safety of construction, road crews and employees of your department?
Eucalitto: Yes, 100 percent. That’s why the previous commissioner and the previous governor’s chief of staff worked with the union to push for a work zone pilot – an automated speed camera program in work zones. We had that pilot running for the last year. Last year’s construction season wrapped up and we have a report that we will be submitting to the legislature in the next several days, identifying the significant benefits of having that automated program in work zones and we will be pursuing legislation this session to make it a permanent program because it was extremely helpful in reducing speeds in work zones. Just in general, driver behavior is atrocious right now and it’s putting our employees at risk and the traveling public at risk. We had 140 of our trucks and equipment hit by drivers [in 2023].
CTEx: Do you expect a restoration of funding for Shore Line East service this session and is there a concern that current levels of funding and service will result in a so-called “death spiral” of lost ridership?
Eucalitto: Since it’s a midterm budget adjustment – usually a major adjustment to the budget would be done in the biennial budget year – I don’t expect anything major to be done in this budget cycle, but that is up to the governor and the legislature. I don’t work at OPM [Office of Policy & Management] anymore, so I am not a party to those discussions. I do think that, you know, we did make efforts to work with commuters on the Shore Line East. We are hopeful that, as we see more growth in population and density near these stations, that there will be an opportunity for investment in additional services down there.
CTEx: What would it take for Shore Line East to restore or expand rail service in the next five years and is this a goal for the CTDOT?
Eucalitto: Public transportation in general is a goal for the DOT. I think the report that came out looking at public transportation in Eastern Connecticut looked at both the rail and the bus side. I think it identifies it’s a good place to start, especially east of the river like in Groton or Stonington. We can make investments in bus public transportation now because it’s easier, it’s more cost-effective and it can be done within the constraints of equipment.
CTEx: In Stamford on Monday, Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner declared that the era of adding additional highway lanes is over. Would you agree with that statement and are there any significant lane or highway expansions that are still on the table or that still need to be completed?
Eucalitto: I agree with Stephen Gardner entirely; the age of highway expansion is over. I am a firm believer in the concept of induced demand which is, if you widen the highway, if you add a lane, it’s just going to fill back up. It’s not going to solve your congestion problem. Where we see potential benefits are places we can do surgical changes to on-and-off ramps – extend that acceleration lane from when you get on the highway without adding highway capacity. So, that is really what our focus is going to be. We do have major highway projects on the horizon in Hartford and Waterbury.
CTEx: In 2021, the Northeast Corridor Commission announced plans for the completion of more than 150 projects over 15 years at an additional cost of $100 billion dollars. Plans include a new rail station for Hartford and the elimination of three at-grade crossings in Mystic. Where do those specific projects currently stand?
Eucalitto: That is part of the Greater Hartford mobility study where currently, today, a large portion of the Hartford line from New Haven to Springfield is double tracked, but there is a significant portion that is single tracked. We did receive federal funds to continue and nearly complete the double tracking – double tracking means to literally put in a second track.
So for Hartford, right now the Hartford line comes in and it curves through Hartford and slows down and it goes into this elevated station over a viaduct in the Hartford station. In order to rebuild and lower I-84 down, we need to move the railroad and straighten it out, which will require us to build a new rail station there.
[For the Northeast Corridor] there is, literally, a bottleneck for the heart of the line and, thus the need for the elimination of the three at-grade crossings in Mystic. This is part of Amtrak’s project; they want to eliminate as many at-grade crossings as possible. That’s Amtrak’s territory.
CTEx: In 2023, there were statewide, top-down zoning bills proposed that would have allowed increased residential density and reduced parking requirements around train stations and travel hubs. Where does the CTDOT stand on this type of statewide Transit-Oriented Development legislation?
Eucalitto: So, zoning, you know, that type of thing is outside the purview of my job. I can say that I think density and infill is a positive. I think it’s a positive to have more density and more residential, more mixed-use around our transit stations. That is a success story you see around the country. That really is the only way we will reduce our carbon emissions in the near future; to have more people living near transit and using transit. Look at what is happening in New Britain, where you have a large investment – we built Fastrak – and you have a huge expansion of housing and new housing. We also see it in West Hartford; transit-oriented development popping up.
CTEx: The CTDOT has set a 2030 Vehicles Mile Traveled [VMT] reduction target date with strategies including an increase in transit access. The VMT reduction target goals are to focus on climate change, greenhouse gas emissions and climate resiliency. Is the department on its way to achieving its goals?
Eucalitto: No, we are not on our way to achieving our goals. We have seen VMT continuing to increase. Our goal is 5% reduction per capita of vehicle miles traveled per individual. We want to see people driving less on a personal basis; we want to see you have less VMT on an annual basis as an individual. We are making some progress by investing in public transportation. In the budget that passed last session, for example, we expanded bus service statewide in almost every transit district across the state. And, every major city in the state is seeing an expansion of public transportation on the bus side. Nine million dollars per year is invested in the bus service, expanding the hours of operation, with new routes, and just making it easier for people to use bus service in our state.
CTEx: What can you tell us about driver behavior, as I know driver safety is an important part of your mission?
Eucalitto: In terms of what’s occurring on our roadways with crashes, we have seen drivers making a series of poor choices. Driver behavior has degraded post-COVID. There are higher rates of people getting behind the wheel when they are impaired; people using cell phones; distracted drivers; drivers not wearing seatbelts; and drivers just weaving in and out of traffic, which wasn’t necessarily as prevalent before. I attribute it to a few things and it’s a nationwide problem. We are still trying to figure it out but, part of the thought is that there are more stress triggers; there is a significant period of stress in our society. People are reacting poorly to that stress and are making poor decisions. Putting other people’s lives at risk was more prevalent during COVID and then it continued. We do have a State Police force that is staffing up and I see their numbers going up every single month in terms of how many stops or tickets they are giving out. We are relying on everyone to make smart choices before they get behind the wheel.