HARTFORD, CT — Unable to find enough support for a bill that would immediately allow tolls to be constructed on Connecticut’s highways, the Transportation Committee approved a bill that would create a two-step process.
The first step in the process would be directing the Transportation Department to conduct an environmental study. The second step would be to bring it back to the legislature to determine whether to move forward and where the tolls would be located.
It was just one of four bills the Transportation Committee passed Thursday that involved language regarding tolls. All the bills except the governor’s bill was approved 19-17 along party lines. The governor’s bill passed 20-16 with Rep. Jesse MacLachlan, R-Westbrook, voting in favor of it.
HB 5391, the bill that creates the two-step process was both praised and panned by lawmakers. Republicans supported the idea that the new car sales tax receipts would be transferred to the special transportation fund. But that was about it.
Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, said the bill tells the Transportation Department to do something it can already do without legislative approval and it also requires the legislature to vote on a future proposal.
“I don’t think we have to vote to allow ourselves to vote,” Lavielle said.
She said all four bills “assign full responsibility for making future decisions on number, location, and pricing of tolls to unelected bodies of political appointees.”
Republicans also objected to language in the bill that states the report from the Transportation Department would be approved when they reconvene next year, if they don’t take action on it within 30 days.
“If you’re for tolls vote for them, if you’re against tolls vote against them,” Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, said. “Don’t approve a situation which is going to leave open the possibility that we won’t act on it at all.”
Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, who is adamantly opposed to tolls said it would be more fair to raise the retail gas tax than it would be to install tolls that will burden some residents more than others.
Also she said they have plenty of studies on the issue of tolls and where they would be located.
Rep. Buddy Altobello, D-Meriden, said gas consumption has gone down about 70 million gallons per year and diesel has gone down about 12 million gallons per year.
“The problem is we haven’t changed the gasoline tax at 25 cents since July 1, 2000,” Altobello said. “That quarter is not worth a quarter anymore. It’s worth 17 cents.”
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has proposed increasing the retail gas tax seven cents this year to help stabilize the special transportation fund.
Without new funding Malloy has said they will be forced to delay and cancel billions of dollars in projects and increase fares and reduce services for bus and rail riders.
“We have heard from our Transportation Commissioner and agency that the money is not there,” Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, said. “And if we don’t act this year to find a solution—whether it’s the diversion of the new car sales tax from the general fund into the special transportation fund or raise the gas tax to bring in some revenues—there is no money moving forward for the immediate needs of the state of Connecticut.”
Leone pointed out that even the Commission on Fiscal Stability supported tolls in their report.
“It’s never going to be good enough for those that just don’t like it,” Leone said. “But not liking it and having to deal with what we have to do is two different things in my mind.”
The Democrats currently hold an 80-71 majority over Republicans in the House and are evenly split in the state Senate where Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman is able to break a tie.
The Connecticut Republican Party was already making tolls a partisan issue in the 2018 election.
“Connecticut Democrats are moving forward to add tolls to state roadways,” a Republican Party email stated Thursday. “As if the Democratic Party has not cost Connecticut’s Workers enough, they will be making the commute to work more expensive.”