HARTFORD, CT — With three weeks to go in the legislative session the sense of urgency is building on the need for legislators to figure out whether and when they will vote on highway tolls.
Gov. Ned Lamont has been pushing for that vote ever since he took office in January, but so far no bill has come to the floor in either the House or Senate.
The fact that the clock is ticking hasn’t been lost on House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, who has been a vocal proponent of tolling Connecticut highways as what he believes is the only viable option to fund badly needed road improvement projects.
Aresimowicz narrowly held onto his seat after a recount last November and many political observers believe it was his outspoken support of tolls that almost cost him the election.
At his pre-session press conference Tuesday, Aresimowicz addressed the issue.
Stating that he’s not normally a pessimistic person, Aresimowicz told reporters that he doesn’t believe the details of whatever bill finally emerges really matter.
“People have drawn their lines in the sand,” Aresimowicz said. “It’s now become an emotional debate.”
“You can tell them there are no longer 82 gantries,” Aresimowicz said. “You can tell them that 40 percent of the money will come from out of state and you can offer them discounts and they’ll say that’s not true, show me how.”
“Details almost don’t matter,” the House speaker said.
As far as the type of bill that may eventually hit the floor of the House or the Senate, Aresimowicz added: “there is no grand bargain being hatched behind closed doors.”
“There is ongoing discussion, what is politically feasible,” Aresimowicz said, although he added: “I don’t think we’ve landed anywhere.”
What hasn’t changed, Aresimowicz said in his opinion, is the need to do something to improve road conditions and speed up the commute for both Connecticut drivers and businesses who rely on the roads to transport goods.
“I came in from West Hartford at 9:30 this morning and I was stuck in traffic for a half-hour. And that’s just me,” Aresimowicz said.
Both Aresimowicz and Rep. Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said one issue upon which they agree is that the Republicans’ “Prioritize Progress” transportation plan — which commits $65 billion over the next 30 years to transportation by adding some general obligation bonding to the Special Transportation Fund — is the wrong way to go.
The legislation has been pitched by Republicans as an alternative to Lamont’s proposal to install 50 electronic toll gantries on four Connecticut highways to raise around $800 million a year.
“Show me an editorial from any newspaper in the state of Connecticut that shows that “Prioritize Progress” is the way to go,” Ritter said. “I don’t mean to be mean.”
“What is the alternative?” Ritter went on. “People are going to pay for it one way or another.”
Republican Senate Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said that “Democrats continue to use inaccurate partisan talking points to criticize Prioritize Progress.”
“The reality is Prioritize Progress is the only plan that does not ask for more from state taxpayers,” Fasano said. “But instead of bonding for wants — like statues and playgrounds — it requires bonding be invested in our needs including infrastructure, which has a better return on our investment and will foster economic growth.”
Fasano added: “It’s disappointing to hear Democrats say the details almost don’t matter when it comes to tolls. Democrats have pandered to the public constantly changing their toll proposal without ever offering a real plan, with real numbers, and clear details defined in a bill.”
Fasano said Democrats continue to dismiss the alternative to tolls at the same time that “they have failed to offer any real details or guarantees of how tolls will work and the true impact on Connecticut residents.”
Lamont has been holding regular press events at which he has been encouraging lawmakers negotiating a toll proposal to move forward with the legislation and get a vote.
At his most recent press conference on transportation on Monday in New Haven, Lamont said: “This is our time right now to do the right thing.”
“Every business leader I talk to tells me we have to get the traffic moving again,” Lamont said in New Haven, adding that tolling is a big part of that strategy.
On Tuesday evening Lamont’s staff sent around a letter in support of tolls from the cities of Hartford, New Haven, and Stamford along with 24 organizations, civic groups, institutions, and concerned citizens.
Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, who was at the New Haven press conference with the governor, said he’s confident that there will eventually be a tolling bill that will be debated and voted upon.
Lemar, who is co-chair of the Transportation Committee, said: “We continue to talk each and every day and we’re getting closer.” Lemar said there’s no deadline he believes that needs to be met but he reiterated he is confident there will be a tolling bill debated and voted on.
Lamont, who has used all of his political capital on this proposal, is anxious for a vote. He said there’s very little left to negotiate and he’s ready for them to call the amendment.
The problem is most lawmakers haven’t seen it, which makes it difficult to get a vote count. Some lawmakers are refusing to commit to voting for something they have yet to read.
Lamont sought to offer lawmakers additional money in the short-term to help make sure the current transportation system doesn’t fall into a state of disrepair. He also sought to offer a compromise to having the full General Assembly vote on a toll plan, if it receives approval from the Federal Highway Administration.
Instead of the $250 million in general obligation bonds the bipartisan budget proposed in 2018, Lamont is looking to reduce that to $100 million.
Lamont said the $100 million he wants to spend would be focused mainly on rail, such as Shore Line East and Metro-North.
Lamont’s tolling proposal will still include 50 gantries on I-84, I-91, I-95 and Route 15. There were rumors that Lamont would take tolls off Route 15 to get more votes from lawmakers from Fairfield and New Haven County, but his staff insisted that concept is not going to be part of the proposal.
Lamont said they are working on making sure they’re able to give a discount to working families and pre-load that onto their EZ-Pass.
On Monday he offered to lower the cost of CT Transit bus fare from $1.75 to $1 a ride.
Opponents of tolls are expected to rally at the state Capitol on Saturday.