HARTFORD, CT — A key legislative committee passed three bills that pave the way for electronic tolling in Connecticut after three hours of debate Wednesday. All three bills passed 23-13 along party lines.
It’s the third year electronic tolling has been debated by the Transportation Committee, but it’s the first year a governor has given the proposal his full support.
Before the Transportation Committee vote Wednesday, Gov. Ned Lamont pitched the business community on electronic tolls.
“Every single business leader I’ve talked to, the Fiscal Commission and Fairfield Business Council leaders knows that our transportation system — makes us so much less competitive,” Lamont told business leaders at Connecticut Business and Industry Day at the state Capitol.
He said he needs another revenue stream in order to implement his 30-30-30 vision, which would help people get from Hartford to New Haven, New Haven to Stamford, and Stamford to New York in 30 minutes for each leg of the trip.
Lamont said he understands there is distrust of government to use any additional revenue from tolls on transportation.
But he said S&P Global upgraded its outlook of Connecticut’s bonds this week for the first time in 18 years because of the budget proposal he put forward.
That budget reduces borrowing by $500 million and calls for electronic tolls.
“We need a new independent source of revenue that’s reliable, predictable that goes to transportation,” Lamont said.
He said that was something Wall Street appreciated.
“I can’t find a credible alternative to make the investments going forward,” Lamont said.
Lamont said he really thinks tolls are the “future of the state,” and that’s “why I’m leaning in on this hard.”
He promised the business executives that he would do everything he could to assure the public their money was being well spent.
Gov. Ned Lamont talks about selling his proposals following a meeting with the business community.
Posted by CTNewsJunkie.com on Wednesday, March 20, 2019
Republican lawmakers, including legislative leaders Len Fasano and Themis Klarides, bristled at the notion that they didn’t offer a viable alternative.
Klarides and Fasano both used their leadership privileges to address the Transportation Committee during debate on the first toll bill to explain that their “Prioritize Bonding Proposal” was being drafted for debate by the Finance, Revenue, and Bonding Committee.
Klarides said they were promised a hearing on the bill by Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford. Rojas said as soon as the language of the bill is drafted his committee will hold a hearing.
Meanwhile, opposition to tolls was not a partisan issue.
Rep. Travis Simms, D-Norwalk, said he has some real concerns about what tolls would mean for the hard working, middle class, and low income constituents he represents.
“At the end of the day we’re talking about these people’s bottomline,” Simms said.
He worries that people would have to make more sacrifices than they currently do to get to work.
He voted for the bill to get out of committee, but he reserved his right to vote against it on the floor.
Rep. Emil ‘Buddy’ Altobello, D-Meriden, said there are bits and pieces of the three bills that he likes, but he wouldn’t give final passage to any of them as they are currently written.
Rep. Christine Conley, D-Groton, said she understands the need for improvements to Connecticut’s infrastructure, including the Gold Star Bridge in her district, but she reserves her right to vote against the legislation in the future if she can’t get answers to some of her questions.
The biggest unanswered question lawmakers had Wednesday was about the financial impact tolls would have on their constituents.
Will it cost $1,000 more a year for some residents to get to work?
According to pricing info provided by the Department of Transportation, the annual cost of a round-trip daily commute from Hartford to New Haven at rush hour under a congestion pricing method would be about $823.46.
None of the bills detail what type of EZ-Pass discount Connecticut residents would receive. A recent Office of Legislative Research report found that no state allows an income tax credit for tolls, but deduct at least two states, Massachusetts and West Virginia, allow drivers to deduct toll expenses from their taxable income.
Most lawmakers sided with Lamont and believed postponing the inevitable need for infrastructure improvements is what is contributing to Connecticut’s current fiscal mess.
“If we don’t make a move pretty soon it’s going to look like a bombed out Syrian provence,” Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, said of Connecticut’s roads and bridges.
There are 332 poor and structurally deficient bridges in Connecticut, according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association.
“I don’t want people in my state holding their breath when they cross bridges,” Steinberg added. “I don’t want to be here when we have another Mianus River Bridge.”
He was referring to the Mianus River Bridge on Interstate 95 in Greenwich, which collapsed 35 years ago, killing three motorists.
Steinberg said the problem is not going to get better over time, it’s going to get worse.
But the toll debate was about more than Connecticut’s aging roads and bridges. It was about legislative power.
“All three toll bills approved today have one thing in common, they allow lawmakers to completely abandon their responsibility to taxpayers and shift the blame to someone else,” Fasano and Sen. Henri Martin said. “Those who voted in favor of these bills today do not have the courage to own up to the fact that their actions will be responsible for tolls across the state and massive new taxes on every resident.”
Connecticut has been without tolls since 1985. The state’s limited number of tolls were removed from its highways two years after a terrible accident in 1983 when a truck crashed into a line of cars at toll plaza in Stratford. Seven women and children were killed in the crash that resulted in an explosion and fire.