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Plan to repair Connecticut roads faces long haul in legislature

Few people had ever heard of the Mianus River bridge on the Connecticut Turnpike until it collapsed without warning last June, taking the lives of three people.

But that collapse and the controversy surrounding it quickly came to symbolize the problems the United States is having with its aging infrastructure.

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Now, seven months later, Connecticut is trying hard to overcome its image as a state with potentially unreliable bridges, highways, and other key facilities - an image under which it clearly chafes.

The effort, however, will be a lengthy - and expensive - one.

Even as work crews moved in last week to remove the temporary span that allowed northbound traffic on the heavily used artery to flow again, a special task force was recommending to Gov. William A. O'Neill (D) a 10-year, $5.2 billion plan to repair other bridges, roads, and dams across the state. At its center is a controversial package of new taxes that could cost each state motorist an average of $15 more a year.

About $3 billion of the overall estimated cost would come from the federal Highway Trust Fund, and communities would be asked to pay about $200 million toward fixing locally owned bridges.

The dedicated fund for bridge repair recommended in the plan calls for a number of tax-raising measures: a 2-cent-a-gallon hike in the state gasoline tax (at 14 cents a gallon, already one of the nation's highest), a $5 increase in motor-vehicle registration charges, and a $1.25 increase in the cost of a driver's license beginning in fiscal 1985.

More than 20 percent of Connecticut's nearly 6,000 bridges are structurally deficient and need immediate repair, the task force said. It proposed that inspection programs be expanded to include even the smallest spans in the state.

''Connecticut really does face a crisis in protecting the public safety,'' said task force chairman Edward Stockton in presenting the plan. ''Those who use the roads and bridges . . . should pay the bill.''

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More temporary improvements on the Mianus River bridge were completed Saturday, allowing traffic to flow on all three lanes of the previously collapsed portion, according Department of Transporation spokesman William Keish.

State officials insist that the new interim span has been analyzed and tested carefully and is safe. A completely rebuilt, permanent span, with four extra piers and four times the original number of girder supports, is expected to open in 1986.

The timetable for the task force's comprehensive plan, on the other hand, is indefinite. The state's General Assembly will not return until early February, and once it does the plan seems certain to face stiff opposition.

''I don't think the opinion is that we won't do something about the problem, '' says state Sen. William DiBella (D) of Hartford, who chairs the Transportation Committee and sits on the Finance Committee. He also served on the governor's task force.

But Senator DiBella faults the plan for not adequately addressing the problem of funding the costly project. He favors dedicated funds for repairs that would be raised by increasing tolls on state roads.

In addition, he says the General Assembly should take a hard look at scaling back the $35 million-a-year subsidy the state pays to help cover the operating deficit of the heavily used Metro North commuter rail line into New York City. Users receive a $2.40-per-ride break on their fares regardless of their ability to pay, he complains.

''I will not support a plan that is not comprehensive,'' he warns.

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