HARTFORD, CT — A working draft of the toll bill indicates that the state would cut the gas tax by one cent per gallon per year over a five-year period to offset the additional cost of tolls. The draft also includes discounts for low-income residents and outlines investments in a number of critical projects.
The bill, which House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz doesn’t want to release publicly, has not been finalized and the words “Working Draft” are written across the top. Aresimowicz said he doesn’t want to have to make a change to the bill at the last minute and lose support from the public, who may view it as a change in position.
Already, Gov. Ned Lamont has been criticized for changing his mind about truck-only tolls shortly after taking office. There’s widespread distrust of public officials and their handling of the Special Transportation Fund because money has been diverted before reaching the fund in the past.
The draft of the legislation says the toll revenue will be focused on operational improvements to Interstates 95 and 84, the mixmaster in Waterbury, Heroes Tunnel in New Haven, the Gold Star Memorial Bridge in New London, and the interchanges between 84 and 91 and between Route 7 and Route 15.
That will free up money for the replacement of the movable bridges on the New Haven rail line, help the state improve service on the Hartford Line and Shore Line East, and build new commuter rail stations in Newington, Bridgeport, and West Hartford.
Bridgeport lawmakers recently told the Connecticut Post that they want a new East Side train station in exchange for their support for tolls.
The draft plan says the state can’t install more than 50 electronic gantries on Interstates 84, 91, 95, and portions of Route 15.
It also gives the Commissioner of Transportation the ability to enter into tolling agreements with the federal highway administration and a third-party toll operator.
The draft also says the state will create a bipartisan Connecticut Transportation Commission, which would have the ability to raise or lower toll rates after the first three years.
The starting rate will be 4.4 cents per mile during peak periods and 3.5 cents during off-peak periods. Toll rates shall be fixed at the lowest amount necessary to achieve congestion reduction and to provide sufficient funding to operate the tolled highways, according to the bill.
The commission would be comprised of 13 members, six chosen by the legislature, six from among state officials, and one additional individual picked by the governor.
Specifically, the six state officials on the commission would be the commissioners of Transportation, Department of Economic and Community Development, Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Housing, the OPM Secretary, and the State Treasurer.
According to the draft, the Connecticut Transportation Commission would have extraordinary powers in that it would be allowed to approve or reject five-year plans proposed by the Department of Transportation aside from setting toll rates.
Republican legislative leaders continue to hold out hope that their plans to improve Connecticut’s infrastructure will convince Democratic lawmakers not to vote for tolls, but Gov. Ned Lamont is making it hard for them to reject a plan that hardly anyone has seen.
Late Thursday afternoon, Republicans released a new proposal to slow momentum toward tolls.
The plan calls for using $375 million in general obligation bonds annually over the next five years to get started on improvements. That’s a few hundred million less than suggested by their “Prioritize Progress” plan, which called for $700 million in general obligation bonds be dedicated toward transportation.
“We’re all in agreement we need to fund transportation, we just didn’t agree with the tolling plan,” House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said.
But Lamont blasted the Republican proposal, saying it’s nothing more than a study that delays making tough decisions.
“I can see why voters are so cynical about politics and politicians,” Lamont said.
“If you don’t want a toll, say it. If you want to borrow, say it. If you don’t want to do anything, say it. You know where I stand,” Lamont continued. “I’m not going to let them hide behind yet another study. I’m going to make everyone cast a vote to get this state moving again.”
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said the Democrats don’t have the votes for their proposal. If they did, Lamont wouldn’t have needed to visit the House Democratic caucus on Wednesday night.
“When you have a governor who is basically making promises, monetary promises, to caucuses and then you have a governor who has been going all around the state trying to coerce and convince people to support tolls because he doesn’t have the votes, you see the kind of desperation that we’re dealing with right now,” Klarides said.
Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said that if the toll proposal could be defended then “it wouldn’t have to be changed every 30 seconds.”
Lamont defended his decision to offer support to lawmakers.
“Sounds like I’m going to support people that share my mission and share my vision,” Lamont said. “… I’m going to be asking people to take a tough vote and I’m going to be standing with them when I do.”
Asked about the appearance that he looked to be buying votes, Lamont said he’s going to “support these folks.”
“I’m asking people to make a tough vote and I’m going to be standing with them,” he added.
Emily DiSalvo contributed to this report.