Christine Stuart photo
Sen. Steven Cassano and Rep. Jonathan Steinberg (Christine Stuart photo)

A group of transportation advocates, lawmakers, and labor representatives gathered Thursday at the Legislative Office Building to urge lawmakers to use a special session to approve a constitutional lockbox for transportation funding.

Creating the lockbox would create “a marker indicating that we are serious about this,” Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, said.

His co-chair on the Transportation Bonding Subcommittee, Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, said it’s imperative that the state continue its commitment to fund transportation.

It’s been a slow road to getting both additional money for transportation and a lockbox. Earlier this year the legislature approved a statutory lockbox for transportation funds, but there are ways to get around it. If the legislature supports, and then voters approve a constitutional lockbox at the voting booth in 2016, there’s no way lawmakers can raid money dedicated to funding transportation.

Senate Republican leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said if Democratic lawmakers were really serious about a constitutional lockbox, they should have approved it with the state budget in June.

“Today’s press conference was a political move to get headlines, after they refused to make a constitutional lockbox a part of the budget they negotiated back in June,” Fasano said in a statement.

He said anything less than a “constitutional amendment creating a transportation lockbox is merely a promise that Democrats and Governor Malloy have shown they are unable to keep.”

Cassano said he expects legislative leaders and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to include the creation of a constitutional lockbox in the call for a special session to address the budget shortfall. The special session will likely be held in December, and a constitutional lockbox would have to be approved by a three-quarters majority in order to move forward to a statewide vote in 2016.

“A lockbox has to be approved,” Cassano said. “It makes it a lot easier to put the money aside.”

Malloy started funding his $100 billion, 30-year transportation vision with the 2016-2017 budget. At the moment, he’s using a half percent of the sales tax to help fund it, and a task force he created is expected to make more recommendations about funding opportunities next month.

Steinberg said the $100 billion figure sounds a little overwhelming, and some of his colleagues seem to be wavering on their commitment to transportation. He said lawmakers are wondering if they can take a little bit of money from transportation and put it toward other issues. He said he knows it’s tempting, but it’s not something he could support.

The state Bond Commission has committed $5 billion over five years to funding transportation improvements, Steinberg said.

“That’s necessary, not for grand projects, but for design work, for state of good repair that’s been ignored for many years,” Steinberg said.

Lyle Wray, director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments, said transportation funding can’t be an “on again and off again” proposition because it won’t get done, and transportation projects need a lot of lead time.

Don Shubert of the Connecticut Construction Industries Association said most of Connecticut’s highways were built 50 years ago, and in the case of four rail bridges, 100 years ago.

But for a lot of people, the state of disrepair is “virtually invisible,” Shubert said. That’s until something happens.

“Transportation affects everybody in Connecticut, every day,” Shubert said.

Highway accessibility was the number one factor in relocation decisions cited by corporate executives, according to Area Developments annual survey.

Cassano said the state for many years had the highest per capita income in the country, but he doesn’t believe the state will be able maintain that reputation because the jobs being created today don’t pay as well. He said without improving transportation, the state isn’t going to “create the industry that’s going to create the jobs that pay the kinds of (salaries) to return money to the income tax that comes to the state.”

But should the state also look at implementing tolls or raising taxes in order to have money to set aside for these transportation projects?

Cassano said that is likely part of the discussion between legislative leaders and Malloy, who are in closed-door budget negotiations in preparation for a special session.

“How much can we afford to put aside now? Look, there’s good years and there’s bad years. The lockbox protects the bad years,” he said.

Pressed on whether taxes increases should be part of the discussion, Cassano said “tax increases can’t be a part of it. We’ve had just too much in tax increases in the last couple of years.”