HARTFORD, CT — The state Bond Commission Wednesday voted to spend $10 million to study the implementation of electronic tolls in Connecticut.
The Bond Commission voted six in favor, three opposed, with one abstention after an hour-long debate about the controversial plan from outgoing Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in front of a jammed pack room of interested onlookers in the Legislative Office Building.
Before the Bond Commission approved the study, an amendment introduced by Rep. Chris Davis, R-East Windsor, to remove the money from the overall transportation package, failed because only he and fellow Republican Bond Commission member L. Scott Frantz, R- Greenwich, voted for it.
Davis, Frantz and State Comptroller Kevin Lembo voted against funding the toll study. State Treasurer Denise Nappier abstained.
Malloy who tried not to take a firm position on tolls until the public got a chance to vote on a transportation lockbox at the polls this November, took the bold step last week of directing his state agency to conduct a comprehensive assessment of tolling Connecticut’s highways.
Before the vote was taken, Malloy read a statement to the audience, which said in part: “The item on today’s agenda is not a vote for tolls. Let me say that again – the item on today’s agenda will not enact tolls in Connecticut. That can only be done through an act of the legislature.
“What it will do is study our options,” Malloy added: “It will give the legislature more information of what tolls would look like, what kind of revenue they would raise, and what the impact would be on our roads and our environment.”
Malloy emphasized that even with the Bond Commission approval “none of this money will be expended until at least the spring of next year.”
“A new Governor and a new legislature will be in session and can do whatever they please if they disagree with this action, before one dollar is spent,” Malloy said. “But we need to allocate the funding now if we want qualified vendors to actually reply to an RFP.”
Malloy and Davis had a testy exchange over the issue. Davis even questioned whether Malloy had the authority to ask for the authorization since the recently concluded legislative session passed on taking up a study on electronic tolls.
“We have have heard time and time again from people of Connecticut that they don’t see a need or a desire to have a $10 million study,” Davis said. “The state has spent millions of dollars studying tolling already.”
As to whether he had the authority, both Malloy and fellow Bond Commission member Attorney General George C. Jepsen said Malloy did, because they both said the fact that the legislature didn’t vote but did nothing on tolling gave the governor that authority.
The tolling initiative pushed by Malloy was panned by the top Republican in the Senate.
“Governor Malloy has been laser focused on trying to push more burdens onto the backs of taxpayers to solve his financial mismanagement,” Senate Republican President Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said Wednesday.
“He has become so blinded by his sudden, end of term vision to pickpocket the people of Connecticut through tolls that he cannot even see the value of other solutions on the table,” Fasano added.
Fasano insisted the Republican transportation plan, called Prioritize Progress, would
significantly boost transportation funding within current state resources without taxes or tolls.
The Republican transportation plan Fasano trumpeted has as its main strategies: reserving a set amount of General Obligation Bonds to be used solely for transportation priorities; preserving current Special Tax Obligation bonds dedicated to transportation; having the Transportation Strategy Board (TSB) to work alongside the Department of Transportation (DOT) to assess proposed projects and identify community needs.
“Prioritize Progress has increased transportation funding in Connecticut to $1 billion annually – more than ever before,” Fasano said. “We did this without raising any taxes or establishing tolls.”
It would push aside bonding for other projects.
And during the Bond Commission meeting when asked about Prioritize Progress, DOT Commissioner James Redeker said it was “inadequate to meet needs of state’s transportation system.”
The toll issue has been a hot topic in the gubernatorial debates leading up to the November election. Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, one of the Republican favorites in the Aug. 14th primary, said at this week’s debate that he would “lay across I-95” if he had to to stop tolls from being installed.
But Malloy believes he’s doing the next governor a favor.
As vehicles become more fuel efficient or completely electric, the Special Transportation Fund will continue to become more insolvent as each year goes by – an issue that states all across the nation are grappling with.
Since 2013, at least 26 states have responded to the issue by increasing gas taxes, including seven states in the last year alone. The motor vehicle fuel tax in Connecticut was reduced in 1997 from $0.39 per gallon to $0.25 per gallon and has not changed since.