HARTFORD, CT — A few hours after the end of a chaotic legislative session House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, didn’t hesitate when she was asked Thursday about her signature achievement.
“I’m most proud of not getting tolls passed,” Klarides said at a Legislative Office Building press conference hours after the gavel dropped on the 2018 session.
Klarides touched on a number of topics during the half-hour give-and-take with reporters, but a majority of the questions centered on the toll controversy.
Since the start of the short session, back in early February, there was speculation that the General Assembly was going to have to finally take a vote on whether to bring tolls back to Connecticut. The estimated $600 million that could be raised would help repair Connecticut’s roads and bridges by providing revenue for the Special Transportation Fund, which was on the verge of insolvency.
There seemed to be widespread agreement that funding was running dry. It prompted Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to suspend $4.3 billion in transportation projects and propose cuts to bus and rail service.
But after repeatedly promising a vote and staking his political career on electronic highway tolls, House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said in the week before the end of session that he wouldn’t be holding a vote.
The Democrats hold a 79-71 advantage in the House but Aresimowicz conceded he didn’t have the votes to pass a toll bill to then send it to the Senate.
What compounded the problem for Aresimowicz was the fact was that General Assembly members are facing re-election in November — and many didn’t want to have the baggage of a vote in favor of tolls to explain to voters if it wasn’t going to pass the Senate. The bill wouldn’t have even authorized tolls, it would have left it to the future General Assembly to determine following a study by the Transportation Commissioner James Redeker. But often those details don’t matter.
Klarides said the tolling debate she’s heard “should give people of Connecticut concern.”
“We are the third smallest state in the country,” she said, stating some of the possible rates that have been discussed in tolling proposals are, in her opinion, too high.
Connecticut would not be allowed to erect border tolls, which means it’s likely that the only tolling system they could create with federal approval would be tolls based on a congestion pricing structure.
Congestion pricing is the practice of charging higher tolls when traffic is heaviest and lower or no tolls at other times. It is meant to reduce traffic on the tolled road by encouraging drivers to use local roads or public transit if they do not want to pay the highway toll.
Klarides said the toll proposal has not been properly vetted.
Asked what needs to happen next on the issue, Klarides answered: “Let’s have some reasonable proposal to talk about.”
She referred to tolls as a “revenue grab” that will increase the cost of living in Connecticut.
When he dropped his plan for a toll vote in the House, Aresimowicz blamed the lack of information about the necessity of tolls and a constant narrative that suggests “Connecticut sucks at all costs.”
The proposed legislation being floated during the session would have asked the Department of Transportation Commissioner to study the issue and come up with a plan for how many tolls would be installed and how much it would cost commuters. The bill would then require the next legislature to adopt the plan.
“Our goal was to have an honest conversation with the taxpayers of the state,” Aresimowicz repeatedly has said.
But he added that’s hard to do when there are people “who want to paint the picture that Connecticut sucks at all costs and any new thing is going to force people out of the state.”
Aresimowicz said they’ve gotten to a point where they can no longer have an intelligent argument about the insolvency of the Special Transportation Fund or the decline in the amount of gas taxes due to an increasing number of electric vehicles on the roads.
Republicans have said they could re-prioritize $2 billion in general obligation bonds and use that to improve the state’s infrastructure without tolls.
“Bonding and spending aren’t bad if they are done in a responsible way,” Klarides said, stating the Republican plan to borrow “over 20 years” to fix the infrastructure was more palatable than tolls.
Democrats have argued that it would crowd out too many other worthy capital projects.
When they inked the budget deal Wednesday they agreed to increase the diversion of the sales tax on new car purchases to the Special Transportation Fund is so that bus and rail service and road projects can be funded.
According to the national transportation research group TRIP, the Reason Foundation, and the American Society of Civil Engineers, Connecticut roads are among the worst in the country. TRIP found that 57 percent of Connecticut roads are in “poor condition and 33 percent of bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.