HARTFORD, CT — Senate Republicans pointed Thursday to an internal Department of Transportation memo to show Gov. Ned Lamont’s transportation funding proposal is inadequate and will severely limit funding for new transportation projects.
Senate President Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said Lamont’s own DOT created a document that shows removing $250 million in general obligation bonds from the Special Transportation Fund will “severely limit the funding available for new projects.” It would also require the delay of many pending projects ranging from the Charter Oak/I-91 interchange to the Clinton railroad station.
The internal DOT memo, which was written on Feb. 7, doesn’t anticipate Lamont’s decision to cap new car sales tax revenue going into the Special Transportation Fund, but it does anticipate future revenue from tolls.
Moving $250 million in general obligation bonds to the Special Transportation Fund was part of the bipartisan budget negotiated before Lamont was elected when the number of Republicans and Democrats in the Senate was tied.
“It violates the public trust in that we said this was going to be dedicated to infrastructure,” Fasano said.
He said the memo talks about other revenue, specifically tolls. However, it also mentions that toll revenue will not be realized for five years from the day that it’s approved. “The time to plan, gain regulatory approvals, design and construct a toll system has been estimated to take 4 years, with partial revenue services in years 5 and 6. Full revenue operations would be achieved in year 7,” the memo states.
Fasano called it a grievous error to remove $250 million in general obligation bonds that would have a devastating impact on Connecticut in the short term. He contends that impact will be felt regardless of what direction the state decides to go with installing electronic tolls.
Republicans are philosophically opposed to installing tolls, Fasano said. Republicans believe they can reallocate Connecticut’s borrowing to improve its transportation infrastructure instead.
He said the “Prioritize Progress” plan dedicates about $706 million a year toward transportation infrastructure improvements over the next 30 years without tolls. Republicans have been promised a public hearing on the proposal by the Finance, Revenue, and Bonding Committee.
Over the past two days, Lamont was in Washington, D.C., meeting with federal officials including U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Cho, but his Chief of Staff Ryan Drajewicz said they are open to having a discussion about using the Republican plan in the short-term.
However, the Lamont administration was unwilling to budge on the idea of installing electronic tolls.
Asked whether the governor was confident he had the votes in the General Assembly for tolls, Drajewicz said, “Yes.”
But he pivoted to say that the conversation is not about tolls — “The conversation is about Connecticut’s future. Transportation plays a critical role in that,” Drajewicz said.
Drajewicz said they’ve inviting Fasano to come work with them at the conference table and not at a podium at a press conference.
“There’s a path through this. This is not a short-term issue. This is not about the next four years,” Drajewicz said. “This is about the next generation.”
He said the number one impediment to Connecticut’s economic growth is the current state of its infrastructure.
Office of Policy and Management Secretary Melissa McCaw defended the decision to cap the transfer of new car sales tax revenue to the Special Transportation Fund. She said they froze the transfer because the Lamont administration doesn’t like “bandaids.” She said they want to find a long-term solution.
“We’re hoping our partners in the legislature will begin to have a long-term view,” McCaw said.
She said S&P Global’s recent decision to upgrade its outlook on Connecticut’s bonds is because of the debt diet Lamont proposed as part of his budget. Lamont wants to put $500 million less on Connecticut’s credit card than previous administrations.
“If there’s no money to fund the debt service, that’s a problem,” McCaw said.
That’s why Lamont has proposed tightening the purse strings when it comes to borrowing.
“This administration believes we should make commitments that are also supported by a funding plan,” McCaw added. She said there was nothing funded to support the debt service created by the $250 million transfer.
In order to fund all the projects on the list that will be delayed as result of losing $250 million in funding, she said, “We are talking about meeting annual debt service of $1.1 billion.”
She said that’s why the conversation is about how the state gets there in both the short and long term.
The General Assembly ultimately will decide the issue as it negotiates the state budget, but the two-year election cycle might not make tolls popular. An estimated 59 percent of voters oppose electronic tolls, according to a Sacred Heart University poll.
“This is one of those moments where legislators have to put themselves above the next two years,” Drajewicz added.