They are guardians on the go for Connecticut drivers in distress, but could a state-run free roadside assistance program be in jeopardy due to state budget cuts?
Since its creation in 1996, the Department of Transportation’s “Connecticut Highway Assistance Motorist Patrol,” or CHAMP, has expanded to a fleet of 15 specialized vehicles that roam the state’s busiest highways during the highest volume hours. Every weekday from 5:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., CHAMP drivers provide roadside assistance free of charge, including pushing disabled vehicles safely out of travel lanes, changing tires and providing jumpstarts or emergency fuel. They also provide shelter for drivers awaiting a tow.
In 2011, the CHAMP fleet helped more than 21,000 drivers, an average of 1,800 calls per month, according to the most recent available DOT figures. But it’s not just commuters getting an assist. State Police said CHAMP also helps troopers work more safely and efficiently.
“They come and back us up,” Trooper First Class John McGeever, of Troop A in Southbury, explained. “Their vehicles are designed to accept an impact, our cars aren’t.”
CHAMP drivers also clear debris, alert troopers to incidents and free them up to get to more urgent calls.
“We can leave that scene, service patrol can stand by and wait for the wrecker, and we can go to more of a priority call,” McGeever said.
It’s a program funded in large part by the Federal Highway Administration, which tells NBC Connecticut they cover 80 percent of the cost, providing $3.8 million in funding every two years. The state covers the remaining costs.
A line item in the governor’s budget passed by the state legislature proposes eliminating that state funding – shown here as $641,000 - beginning July 1.
State Senator Toni Boucher, Senate Ranking Member of the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee, confirmed to NBC Connecticut the CHAMP cut was included in the final budget bill.
NBC Connecticut reached out to the DOT and the governor’s office. Neither could confirm what will happen to the program when the new fiscal year begins July 1, or whether the agency might seek to free up that funding by making cuts elsewhere within the transportation budget.
The DOT issued this statement: “We are still reviewing implications of the budget for the agency, including any impacts to our CHAMP program. While it's too early to specify what changes may occur, our goal is simple - to keep the program operating.”
The governor’s office offered this statement: “Just like the households we represent, we have to live within our means and we have to be more efficient about spending. We’ve passed a budget that doesn’t raise taxes that will require everyone to be smarter about spending. Households don’t budget based on the dollars they wish they had – they budget based on the dollars they actually have. State government should do the same, and we will need to be more efficient while providing high levels of service.”
The House and Senate have approved the state budget. It’s now awaiting the governor’s signature.