Just hours before the start of the new fiscal year, Department of Transportation officials confirmed exclusively to NBC Connecticut that CHAMP, or the Connecticut Highway Assistance Motorist Patrol, will continue “in the short term,” while sources confirm the DOT will seek to privatize the fleet by securing corporate sponsorship for the long term.
The roadside assistance program was set to be shut down on July 1 as the new state budget takes effect. State funding for CHAMP was eliminated in a line item in that budget amid millions in cuts to the DOT. The line item reads “Eliminate the CHAMP Program.”
When NBC Connecticut reporter Heidi Voight first broke this story on June 2, the DOT said in a statement they hoped to keep the program running, but could not elaborate on how they would achieve that. Since that story aired, we heard from several CHAMP drivers who said they didn’t even know their jobs were on the line until they watched our report.
Since its creation in 1996, 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.
Initially created primarily as a way to mitigate the impact of incidents on overall traffic congestion, CHAMP has been lauded by taxpayers and state officials alike, receiving the Governor’s Service Award in 2007 for service excellence. One CHAMP driver received a Commissioner’s Award for stopping a wrong- way driver on Interstate 95.
About 20,000 drivers a year are helped free of charge by the 30 DOT workers who operate this fleet. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, NBC Connecticut was able to obtain letters and comment cards sent to the DOT by some of these drivers.
Some examples include:
- A family with a flat tire on Interstate 91 in Rocky Hill said the CHAMP truck rolled up before they even had a chance to call 911, and got them safely back on the road in 10 minutes.
- A woman whose car broke down on Interstate 95 who said her CHAMP driver “kept me safe in a very dangerous spot until AAA arrived.”
The CHAMP program is 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 -- $641,000 every two years.