Last week Senate Democrats let the air out of Gov. Ned Lamont’s tires on tolls just as he was about to get his new CT2030 transportation plan on the road, citing members who were worried about re-election.
There was no word on which legislators were concerned, but it’s not too hard to guess. Lamont has put all Democrats in the unenviable position of voting on tolls with an election year looming, true. But to make matters worse, he’s plunked tolls down in places that could cause a lot of pain for freshman and vulnerable Democrats.
So let’s take a look at the map of senate districts overlaid with tolling locations. Lamont, who learned an important lesson from his botched rollout of tolling early on in his term, has put tolls only at points where major projects would be done. This is smart! People would have an idea of what their money was going toward, and there would be some certainty that the tolls would disappear when the project was over.
State Senate Districts By Party
Some of these major projects, unfortunately, are either next to or right smack in the middle of districts represented by freshman senators who swung their districts from Republican to Democrat in 2018.
In 2018, Sen. Alex Bergstein, D-Greenwich, became the first Democrat in generations to win her Fairfield County seat. But she would have two tolling locations in or near her district. One of these is located on the teeny stretch of I-684 that runs through Connecticut before returning to New York — there are no Connecticut exits and no one cares. The other, though, is on I-95 in the district just next to Bergstein’s, on a busy road her constituents use all the time.
Sen. Will Haskell, D-New Canaan, is another freshman Democrat in a district long held by Republicans — he defeated longtime incumbent Sen. Toni Boucher in 2018. His district would have a toll on I-95 in Westport, as well as two others in neighboring districts.
Freshman Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, would have no tolls in her district under this plan. But there would be a toll between Danbury and Waterbury on I-84, and enough of her constituents would drive that route daily to make some serious noise about it.
Sen. Mary Abrams, D-Meriden, is in a district that has swung back and forth between Republicans and Democrats several times this decade. Her district would have no tolls in it, but there would be one in Sen. Matt Lesser’s district right next door. That would be the toll for fixing the infamous Middletown traffic lights on Route 9, and since Abrams represents part of Middletown some of the backlash would be hers.
And lastly, Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, won a squeaker of a race in 2018 for an open seat that had been previously held by Republicans. His district is just south of the proposed Middletown toll, and his constituents, whose towns are connected to the rest of the state by Route 9, would be heavily affected.
So it’s no wonder Democrats are a little skittish.
Other Democrats may be spooked by recent election results in some of the towns they represent. The map below has senate districts overlaid on the map of top office local election results. Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, saw Republicans win in several of his towns, including Newington, Wethersfield, Rocky Hill, and Cromwell. Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, recently lost her own race for first selectwoman of Sprague, and the majority of her towns are also led by Republicans at the local level.
Local election results usually have nothing to do with state senate races a year later, but logic and evidence don’t often enter into that dark portion of a senator’s brain that’s concerned with re-election.
State Senate Districts Over Municipal Election Results
Republicans have taken advantage of the Democrats’ timidity, and they wasted no time in rolling out their own no tolls alternative called FASTR CT. This plan replaces tolls in its transportation funding calculus through borrowing, bonding restrictions, and paying down pension debt. I have no idea if it adds up. Some of it sounds like budget gimmickry.
But it may give worried Dems cover to proceed without tolls, and that may be all that matters.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We misspelled Sen. Alex Bergstein’s last name in the original version of this op-ed.