- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 24, 2014

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - Transportation emerged as a top campaign issue Wednesday in Connecticut’s 4th Congressional District, where commuters face major traffic jams daily on Interstate 95 and the Merritt Parkway while they endure recurring problems on the Metro-North Railroad.

At a news conference, Republican challenger Dan Debicella criticized incumbent Jim Himes, a Democrat, for not doing enough to fix traffic woes in the wealthy district next to New York that includes Connecticut’s Gold Coast. Debicella also laid out his plans to reduce traffic congestion and improve the commuter railroad.

Himes later countered by saying he has helped secure nearly $1 billion for transportation projects in southwestern Connecticut during his three terms in the House of Representatives.

“I tell voters, ‘If you think your commute is getting better, vote for Jim Himes,’” said Debicella, a former state senator from Shelton who lost to Himes in 2010. “In 2007 and 2008, transportation was a big issue for candidate Himes, but then Congressman Himes forgot all about it.”

Himes responded: “This is election year theatrics. We’ve grown used to getting this from Dan Debicella. While he’s been working in a hedge fund, I’ve contributed to bringing in almost a billion dollars of investment in our infrastructure. … He’s just blowing a lot of hot air.”

Himes and Debicella, however, both agree that there’s no easy solution to the traffic bottlenecks on I-95 and the Merritt.

State Department of Transportation traffic counts show that the average daily traffic on I-95 last year was more than 150,000 vehicles in parts of New Haven and Bridgeport and more than 70,000 on sections of Route 15, which includes the Merritt and Wilbur Cross parkways.

The federal Department of Transportation says Connecticut’s traffic isn’t as bad as in California, Texas and other states. But weekday morning traffic jams on I-95 southbound begin shortly after 6 a.m., last until nearly 11 a.m. and can be over 20 miles long, according to state traffic data.

On Metro-North, aging equipment slowed commutes twice this summer, including a 118-year-old rotating bridge in Norwalk that got stuck twice in the open position and snarled commutes for thousands of rail riders. Last year, a train derailed in Bridgeport and was struck by an oncoming train, injuring more than 70 people and disrupting service for days.

“The transportation problems add to the problem of Connecticut attracting businesses and jobs,” Debicella said. “If, as a congressman, I could take 10 minutes off people’s commutes that would be more important than any vote I could take in Washington that helps people’s lives.”

Widening I-95 would be a difficult and costly project, Debicella and Himes agreed.

Debicella said some simple, less-expensive projects could improve traffic flow on Interstate 95, including lengthening merging lanes at “choke points” that snarl traffic as cars enter and exit the highway. He also wants Metro-North to focus more on routine maintenance than on new train cars and stations.

Himes is proposing a National Infrastructure Bank in response to decreased government funding for public works projects. The bank would attract private investment and partner with local governments to fund highway construction, bridge replacements and other projects.

Himes also is pushing for a freight train tunnel through New York Harbor. He said a tunnel would allow trains to connect to tracks in Connecticut and take a large number of tractor-trailers off I-95. Freight trains currently can only cross the Hudson River near Albany, New York.

“The more convenient we make rail, the fewer people will be on 95,” Himes said.

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