HARTFORD, CT —The day after he presented two different tolling plans to the General Assembly Gov. Ned Lamont Thursday made it clear he favors tolling all vehicles, not just trucks.
“I think it’s the best long term solution,” Lamont said at a press conference on a balcony at the Office of Policy and Management. The balcony overlooks the Interstate 84 viaduct in Hartford – a two-mile stretch of highway which state officials is again, deteriorating and carrying three times as many vehicles daily as it should be.
On Wednesday, in his first budget address to the General Assembly, Lamont mapped out a plan that would include 53 gantries and limit the tolling to Interstates 84, 91, 95 and Route 15.
The plan is a reduction of gantries by 35 percent – from 82, that was released in a 2018 study the state Department of Transportation (DOT). This new report said the reduction in gantries won’t result in a significant revenue drop, since the roads are so heavily traveled.
The report further proposes charging a reduced rate, of at least 30 percent, to Connecticut EZPass owners.
Toll operations would start in fiscal year 2023 with full implementation by 2025.
According to the governor’s office, “When fully implemented, this new plan will generate an estimated $800 million annually.”
But in his budget, Lamont also outlined a second option – a trucks only toll plan that would raise about $200 million. It was the plan he favored during his successful gubernatorial campaign.
Asked whether he misled voters during the campaign when he said he supported truck-only tolls, Lamont said “we inherited a mess.”
Lamont’s budget closes a two-year $3.5 billion budget deficit.
“Just borrowing our way through this is what got us here,” he said Thursday. “That’s not an option to upgrade our transportation system.”
Lamont, again under questioning, said his team would take a look at whether to proceed with a $10 million study on tolls that was approved last year by the Bond Commission after being proposed by then-Gov. Dan Malloy.
Lamont was critical of the $10 million toll study on the campaign trail.
A spokeswoman for Lamont said the money has been authorized, but has not been allocated. Maribel La Luz, Lamont’s communications director, said the study is a “federal requirement if the state of CT moves ahead with tolling in any capacity.”
“The governor is inclined to hold on the study right now until the General Assembly makes clear their intention at which point the study could include specifics based on what the state is looking to accomplish,” La Luz said.
Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, not only found fault with Lamont changing his stance on tolls but also his overall budget plan for transportation.
“I’m disappointed to hear Gov. Lamont repeatedly say one thing but do another,” Fasano said.
He said Lamont’s budget shortchanges transportation and will “force the state to put needed repairs on hold until tolls are up and running. If the governor really thinks transportation is an immediate priority his budget directly conflicts with his goal.”
Lamont was joined at Thursday’s press conference by Department of Transportation Commissioner (DOT) Joseph Giulietti and Office of Policy and Management Secretary Melissa McCaw.
Giulietti said the I-84 viaduct near the OPM office was built in the 1960s and is already past its 50 year lifespan. He said it was designed to carry 55,000 vehicles a day. Currently, it is carrying 175,000.
Transportation officials have estimated the cost of replacing just that one stretch of highway to be between $2 and $5.3 billion.
Because the tolling plan, whichever form it takes, won’t be in place for at least another four years, the state’s Special Transportation Fund (STF) is not sustainable, according to McCaw.
“We will have an operating deficit,” without additional funding, said McCaw. And Lamont quickly chimed in that he doesn’t think a solution is to increase the gas tax, with more fuel efficient and electric cars on the roads these days.
“I’m trying to help build a transportation system for the next 20 years,” Lamont said. “I’m tired of constantly borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.”
Lamont said he wasn’t looking to jam the toll all vehicles plan down the throats of legislators.
He repeated while he thinks its the best idea he’s open to discussing all options with the legislature about tolling. “We want them at the table,” he said.
“If the legislature says, ‘No Way,’’’ to tolls, Lamont said, “at least I gave them the option.”
Lamont’s tolling pitch in his address to the General Assembly Wednesday was generally greeted by applause from his fellow Democrats but it was not received warmly by Republicans.
Giulietti, who reminded reporters that he has only been on the job five weeks, said he, like Lamont is trying to think long-term when it comes to tackling the state’s crumbling highway system.
Pointing to the I-84 viaduct, Giulietti, who recently retired president of MTA Metro-North Railroad, talked about wanting parts of Connecticut highway system to “eventually be underground,” including perhaps the viaduct at I-84 in Hartford.
He said that would leave land above the highway “open to development,” as part of a longer term economic plan.