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May 26, 2019Cart

Business

by Fairfield County Business Journal
by FCBJ

Lamont offers compromise on tolls, but opposition digs in

To toll or not to toll remains a sticky question for Connecticut, as Democrats and Republicans continue arguing about the issue as the General Assembly’s scheduled June 5 adjournment looms.

Gov. Ned Lamont, who has repeatedly said he supports returning tolls to several of the state’s highways – maintaining that the resultant annual revenue could be in the $800 million-1 billion range – has issued a letter to the General Assembly offering a compromise solution to the apparent stalemate.

“I am more than willing to entertain a compromise that shores up our Special Transportation Fund, provides for some short-term borrowing until the point at which tolls come online and creates a reliable, sustainable revenue source that will fundamentally improve and enhance our transportation system for the future,” Lamont wrote.

The letter did not specify how much borrowing Lamont would entertain, but presumably it would be significantly less than what Republicans have proposed under their “Prioritize Progress” plan. That proposal bypasses tolls entirely, calling instead for $684.6 million to $863 million of annual bonding over the next nine years for transportation projects, along with the continuation of Special Tax Obligation bonds for the regular Department of Transportation capital program, and a hard cap of $2 billion on annual general obligation bonds.

The governor, whose Chief of Staff Ryan Drajewicz rejected the GOP plan in March, calling it “Prioritzed Borrowing,” said he was not interested in “a compromise in which the numbers don’t add up, the excessive borrowing crowds out other needed and necessary investments elsewhere and the approach is simply a band-aid to buy more time until the point at which we can revisit this conversation in another two years — all while our roads and rail continue to decline and economy limps along. I won’t kick the can down the road any longer.”

In addition, “I heard you when you said that you wanted more line-of-sight into the state’s long-range transportation planning and development,” Lamont wrote, “which is why the bill creates a Connecticut Transportation Commission — a bipartisan group of legislators, commissioners and the treasurer, to review and approve DOT’s plan. And let’s harness the opportunity that short-term borrowing provides us, and invest $100 million in rail and transit across the state.”

While state Republicans are nearly unanimous in their opposition to tolls, there is not 100% percent support amongst Lamont’s fellow Democrats, several of whom have complained that the tolls plan does not detail how the resultant revenue would be spent. Senators Alex Bergstein (D-Greenwich) and Will Haskell (D-Westport) support tolls but said they were perturbed by the administration’s inability to establish a coherent and long-term spending plan.

Senate Republican President Pro Tempore and longtime tolls opponent Len Fasano (R-North Haven) released a statement expressing his disappointment that Lamont “remains unwilling to consider alternatives to fund transportation over the long term that do not involve tolls and new taxes …. It is a plan that is based on hypothetical sketch numbers, that has never been shared with the federal government, and that takes the full General Assembly out of the decision making when it comes to how tolls will actually impact our residents and local communities.

“Gov. Lamont’s proposal is a new tax not only on residents here and now,” Fasano added, “but on all future generations who will be paying tolls for years to come.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Martin M. Looney (D-New Haven) also released a statement in reaction to Lamont’s letter.

“The transportation crisis in Connecticut is too large a problem to get bogged down in partisan politics,” he wrote. “We must all rise above narrow partisanship and find a bipartisan solution to rebuilding and strengthening our state’s transportation infrastructure. All of Connecticut –Democrats, Republicans, and Independents – looks to the entire General Assembly to work together on developing a sustainable answer for our transportation challenges.”

Should the tolls plan as written pass, gantries – no more than 50 in total — would be placed roughly every six to seven miles on I-84, I-95, I-91 and Route 15. Drivers who use a Connecticut EZ-Pass and a frequent-user discount could expect to pay roughly 25-30 cents per gantry, or 4.4 cents per mile. In his letter, Lamont repeated the claim that 40% of toll revenue would be paid by out-of-state drivers.