HARTFORD, CT — Everyone agrees Connecticut’s roads need to be repaired and no one wants to see a bridge collapse, but there seems to be little agreement about how to finance it.
The opposition to Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposal to erect electronic tolls on Interstates 84, 91, 95, and Route 15 was visible and vocal Wednesday, but only about 50 people signed up to testify at a public hearing. Opponents packed the Legislative Office Building Wednesday morning, but many left before testifying.
Lamont joined toll supporters, including mayors, construction workers, and business executives, for a press conference before the start of the public hearing. His leadership on the issue was applauded by the group.
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said it would have been easy for Lamont to punt the issue to the legislature because “the rewards will not be felt before the next election,” in 2021.
“Please respect the leadership shown by this governor,” Aresimowicz, a proponent of tolls, said. Aresimowicz is not running for re-election.
Aresimowicz and Senate President Martin Looney have been pushing for tolls for the past few years.
“Anyone who is not committed to tolls in 2019 is not committed to dealing with our infrastructure problem regarding our roads and bridges,” Looney said to loud boos in the room from opponents. “They might be posturing about it, but they’re not committed to a real solution…we have to have a new stream of revenue.”
Toll opponents and Republican lawmakers vehemently disagreed.
Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said under Lamont’s proposal they are removing money that was scheduled to go into the Special Transportation Fund under the bipartisan budget agreement.
Lamont’s budget freezes the transfer of new car sale taxes to the Special Transportation Fund at 8 percent. By cutting off the revenue stream, Fasano said, Lamont is actually taking money away from the fund.
“They’re plan not only weakens the transportation system, delays the infrastructure for at least five years if not longer and doesn’t bring certainty,” Fasano said.
Fasano said the state would not be able to divert the general obligation bonding Republicans want to dedicate to the fund away from it. But it conflicts with Lamont’s desire to cut bonding by $500 million a year.
He said by prioritizing bonding and using a specific amount of general obligation bonds the state can improve its infrastructure without a new revenue stream like tolls.
Lamont said adding to Connecticut’s credit card is the “exact wrong thing to do.”
“That’s why our fixed costs are going through the roof,” Lamont said. “That’s why I’ve strongly said we need to go on a debt diet. That’s why we need a new revenue stream.”
He said they could leverage $400 million of the $800 million in net toll revenue from out-of-state drivers. If the state relies simply on borrowing then all of the money will come from Connecticut residents, Lamont’s administration argues.
Linda Shapiro of Southbury, who opposes tolls, said no one disputes that Connecticut needs better infrastructure, “but where’s the money we already send to take care of it?”
“You need to spend wisely what you already have,” Shapiro said.
Donna Cody, who also opposes tolls, said the money wasn’t always spent on what it was intended for, but there’s little anyone can do about that now.
“We voted overwhelmingly on a lockbox this year and money has been moved,” Cody said referring to the new car sales taxes.
Opponents say traffic diversion from tolled roads to local roads will force hardworking commuters to decide if it’s worth adding time to their commute everyday rather than pay new toll taxes.
Hilary Gunn of Greenwich who stood outside the hearing room with a knitted cap that said “No Tolls” said Connecticut already pays too much for the roads it has.
“And we pay much higher than the national average,” to construct the roads, Gunn said. Also, “I don’t believe we should reward the failure of the legislature to properly budget.”
Gunn said she’d like to see them cut spending in order to fund improvements to the system.
Another bill the committee heard Wednesday calls for the creation of a Connecticut Transportation Finance Authority,
Department of Transportation Commissioner Joseph Giulietti said he’s not enamoured with the idea of creating a Connecticut Transportation Finance Authority to oversee tolls.
He said if the General Assembly wants to create an authority to oversee tolls it’s essentially “adding a layer of management, a layer of costs.”
He said unless there was a reason to create an authority than he doesn’t recommended it. Lamont also was not wedded to the idea and said it’s something that could be negotiated. He said he would be reluctant to create a body that doesn’t have a direct connection with the legislature and the Office of Policy and Management.
Giulietti said the administration’s proposal for congestion pricing is in compliance with the Federal Highway Administration.
He said the conversation is not a new one but the federal government won’t approve Connecticut’s toll proposal without the legislature enabling them to have that conversation.
Toll gantries under Lamont’s plan would be about every six miles. It would cost about $213 million to construct the gantries.
Giulietti asked the committee for more time to calculate what the cost would be for the average Connecticut driver who frequents the roads.
Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, said he understands no one likes tolls, but they have to find a new revenue source.
Leone said if they don’t find a source of revenue “it’s gonna come from somewhere eventually because we cannot afford a broken infrastructure system.”
Democratic leadership fell one vote shy of getting a toll proposal passed in the House two years ago and have since expanded their majority in both the House and the Senate. However, it’s unclear if there’s enough support since tolls isn’t necessarily an issue that breaks along party lines.
Lamont has spent most of his political capital on the issue and is asking the business community in join him in support of the issue.