Gov. Dannel P. Malloy left highway tolls on the table during a press conference Monday as a means of funding expensive upgrades to Connecticut’s aging transportation system.
Since winning re-election to a second term, Malloy has been making a case for the state to begin improving its outdated roads, bridges, and rail systems. The list of projects includes modernizing Metro-North, replacing aging bridges, and replacing or widening sections of the state’s major highways.
Malloy was asked Monday whether he was considering highway tolls as a mechanism for funding those projects.
“Part of that discussion, whether we’re going to go down the road of finally fixing transportation in Connecticut, is how do we pay for it. I’m certainly cognizant of that. Tolls are a way of paying for it. There are other ways to pay for it. The most important question is do the people of Connecticut want to have a world class transportation system?” he said Monday.
Although not an outright endorsement of tolls, the governor now seems more willing to consider the prospect than he was on the campaign trail. During a forum in September, Malloy talked about tolls in the context of an “Armageddon” loss of federal transportation funding.
“It’s not something that I’m jumping into and want to do but if there’s Armageddon and there’s no way to make the kinds of investments that we have to make to improve the system, then we’re going to have to consider those things,” he said in September.
Asked about the comments Monday, Malloy disputed a reporter’s assertion he had previously discussed tolls in terms of a “doomsday scenario.”
The governor has consistently insisted that any new revenue collected to fund transportation projects needs to be placed in a fiscal “lockbox,” preventing it from being redirected into the General Fund.
Discussing tolls last week with the New Haven Register, incoming Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano said the issue was a non-starter unless the transportation lockbox was amended into the state constitution rather than just “dedicated” to transportation in statute.
“Dedicated in this building doesn’t mean anything,” he said.
Amending the state constitution requires either a three-fifths vote by the legislature or approval in two consecutive years. In both cases, the amendment then has to be approved by voters at the polls.
Malloy said he did not necessarily believe a constitutional amendment would be required.
“A lockbox can be effected in a number of ways. One would be a constitutional amendment, another would be to have a legislature express its desire and then have it be a covenant of all future bond sales concerning transportation projects. If you violate the covenant then you violate the credit and lose your credit. That’s a pretty good guarantee as well,” he said.
Connecticut has not had highway tolls in almost 30 years. However, Rep. Antonio Guerrera, co-chairman of the legislature’s Transportation Committee, has long advocated for reinstating them and said last week that he hopes Malloy will back the idea during this coming session. Guerrera said the state’s options to pay for infrastructure projects are limited.
“Either you’re going to borrow money or you’re going to make money somehow. That’s all there is to it,” he said.
The improving fuel economy of many vehicles makes increasing the gas tax, another option for generating revenue for transportation, a poor choice, Guerrera said. He said tolls, and a lockbox mechanism, are “inevitable” at some point.
“When you put all the cards on the table and look at what cars are getting for gas mileage, people sense that [tolls are] something we need to look at,” he said.
When he proposes the next two-year state budget in February, Malloy said he will also present a 25- to 30-year plan for making Connecticut’s transportation system competitive and comparable to other states.
“Ultimately, the people of Connecticut, acting through their legislature, need to decide whether they want to continue talking about transportation and the problems associated with it . . . or whether we actually want to do something about it,” Malloy said.