Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz and House Majority Leader Matt Ritter (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo)

HARTFORD, CT — The possibility of a special session being needed for legislators to act on a bill allowing tolls on state highways was raised Monday by the Speaker of the House.

Acknowledging that time is winding down on the legislative session, which will end June 5, House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, talked at length with reporters about a possible special session on the issue.

“I’m hopeful in getting it (tolling bill) done in the final two weeks,” Aresimowicz said. “It depends on when we finish the budget.”

On the other hand, Aresimowicz added: “I am absolutely comfortable” with coming in for a special session to deal with crafting a bill on tolls.

One of the advantages of a special session, the speaker said, is that if legislators were dealing with a tolling bill in special session there wouldn’t be any other distractions — namely other bills — in the way.

“It is an incredibly complex (tolling) bill to write,” Aresimowicz said. “I wouldn’t be opposed to a special session. It’s that important. Being able to focus on a sole issue isn’t a bad thing.”

Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said if a vote count was taken right now neither party has the votes necessary to push its plans for highway road improvements through.

“It’s not just the Democrats that do not have the votes, neither do the Republicans,” Ritter said, adding that “it’s not just a one-party solution — it’s a statewide solution.”

Aresimowicz and Ritter were asked if Saturday’s rally against tolls had any impact on negotiations.

Capitol police estimated that 2,100 turned out for Saturday’s rally sponsored by No Tolls CT.

Ritter referred to the “low turnout,” adding, “It wasn’t much of a rally.” Some compared the size of Saturday’s rally to the 40,000 who attended a rally to protest the state income tax in 1991.

Ritter added that he didn’t think the rally “necessarily moved the needle” on changing any legislators’ opinion on the issue.

Meanwhile, Ritter added, “Memorial Day weekend is coming up and we will fill the coffers of other states again,” referring to Connecticut travelers who will be driving into other states that have tolls.

Aresimowicz said he also wasn’t sure that lowering the gas tax by five cents over five years, which is part of the “working draft,” moved the needle in favor of tolls.

“I appreciate the sentiment of lowering the gas tax,” Aresimowicz said. “But if we lower the gas tax the oil companies will just raise the price. I don’t know that it’s a game changer,” stating he didn’t know don’t if people are going to see a difference in the price of gas, overall, at the pump.

A working draft of a 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 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.

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.

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.

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.

Late last week, Republicans released a new proposal calling for using $375 million in general obligation bonds annually over the next five years to get started on improvements. That’s in addition to the $700 million in special transportation bonds the state uses on an annual basis to fund infrastructure improvements.

It’s unlikely there is any Republican support for tolls.