Democratic View: Building bridges to a new prosperity

State Senator Will Haskell

State Senator Will Haskell

Contributed photo

The history of the Merritt Parkway’s construction offers a lesson for addressing the present economic crisis.

The Merritt was built at the height of the Great Depression as a means of stimulating Connecticut’s economy. Home values were declining and local highways had become intolerably congested.

Sound familiar?

In the early 1930s, as the national unemployment rate climbed to 25 percent, Connecticut leaders like Congressman Schuyler Merritt realized that our state could realize greater benefits by shifting some of the money being spent on unemployment relief into putting people to work building a new parkway. This new artery connected Fairfield County to New York City’s economy, creating jobs for more than 2,000 skilled and unskilled workers.

The real estate market responded in turn, and the history of Fairfield County was changed forever.

With jobless numbers now at Depression-era levels, I spend every day on the phone with constituents who have experienced a devastating loss of income due to unemployment or the diminished revenue of their small business. Too many families are now forced to choose between paying their bills and putting food on the table.

Meanwhile, decaying infrastructure has been hampering economic activity in Fairfield County since before anyone knew the term social distancing or how to pronounce hydroxychloroquine.

Home values are judged according to their proximity to Manhattan, yet the ride on Metro-North has gotten slower, not faster, over the last few decades.

It’s time to take a page out of the New Deal playbook and make the investments necessary to bring our infrastructure into the 21st century.

I spent much of my first term pushing to fund these improvements to our transportation system. Some of my colleagues wanted to do so by raiding the Rainy Day Fund, a course of action that would have left Connecticut decimated in the face of a recent decline in tax revenue. Thankfully, Gov. Lamont rejected this proposal.

Now that we find ourselves in the midst of a very rainy day, Moody’s has pointed to that fund and credited Connecticut as one of just seven fiscally safe states.

In the coming days and months, the debate will rage on over how and when we can go back to “normal.” We’ll fight over the date of our next haircut and perhaps miss the bigger picture: building a new normal in Connecticut.

Let’s follow the example of Democrats like Gov. Wilbur Cross and Republicans like Schuyler Merritt by working across the aisle and investing in public infrastructure. These investments are necessary not in spite of, but because of, the economic crisis that has devastated our community.

Let’s put Connecticut back to work by repairing our 350-plus structurally deficient bridges and speeding up the trip to Manhattan. Why go back to the normal routine of sitting in traffic or waiting for a delayed train, when our history reminds us that so much more is possible?

State Sen. Will Haskell represents Connecticut’s 26th District, which includes all of Ridgefield. The Ridgefield Democratic Town Committee provides this column.