HARTFORD, CT —Republican lawmakers might be in the minority in both chambers but when it comes to improving transportation, at the moment, they hold all the cards.
Gov. Ned Lamont’s chief of staff, Ryan Drajewicz, has dedicated most of his time over the last few months to coming up with a 10-year transportation plan that leverages federal dollars for transportation projects in strategic areas with the best opportunity for improved economic development.
However, in order to leverage that federal funding, Connecticut will need to give the feds a guaranteed revenue stream. The state can’t afford to bond the entire amount, so a small “user fee” or toll will be required even with federal help.
The number of tolls would be scaled back substantially from Lamont’s initial proposal of 50 gantries to somewhere between 13 and 18, according to sources familiar with the proposal.
But any tolls at all is a non-starter for House Republican Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby.
“I would not support any plan that has toll in it,” Klarides said.
She said she’s not questioning the administration’s truthfulness about sunsetting the program in 10 years after raising the $3.5 billion they need to repair the bridges, “but when has this state ever gotten rid of a revenue stream?”
Klarides said she has not been briefed on the plan, but she is open to looking at anything the administration wants to propose.
Republican Senate Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, acknowledged that funding transportation is a very complicated issue.
“I just gotta figure out what it all kind of looks like,” Fasano said Thursday. “I think he’s right to chase the bonding at less than 2%.”
Fasano is referring to the 2% interest rate being offered by the the Build America bureau of the U.S. DOT. The bureau presented lawmakers with an opportunity to apply for a 2.22% loan for transportation projects in Connecticut. The rate would actually be less than 1% for every project in Connecticut because there’s no city or town with more than 150,000 people. The bureau considers anything less than 150,000 to be rural.
The state wouldn’t have to pay off the loan until five years after the completion of the projects.
In addition, because it owns its own rail lines, the state could put up the rails as collateral to obtain what amounts to around $5.5 billion in federal funding to reduce commuting time on the five rail lines.
Fasano, who went with Drajewicz to Washington D.C. this summer to hear about the funding opportunities, said the problem still lies with tolls.
“There’s a huge trust factor,” Fasano said.
The Lamont administration believes it’s found a way to improve that trust factor by contracting for 10 years with a third-party vendor to administer the tolling program and thus, put it out of reach of the legislature.
“Even if you limit tolls can a new legislature say ‘I read the language to say we can put tolls every place?’” Fasano wondered.
Drajewicz needs Republican support for the plan in the state Senate because the legislature’s Democratic majority has said they’re only interested in voting on something that has bipartisan support.
Asked if he thought he could sell the latest plan to a few members of his caucus, Fasano declined to give any indication of which way he was leaning.
“I have to really think this through,” Fasano said.
Drajewicz said at least as a starting point, everyone can agree on the problem.
“Our roads, bridges, mass transit, airports and ports aren’t Democratic or Republican,” Drajewicz said. “They’re for 3.5 million people that call this great state home.”