Paul Bass / New Haven Independent
Sens. Martin Looney and Len Fasano (Paul Bass / New Haven Independent)

Passenger tolls will be off the table for good when the state legislature begins 2020 by revisiting the great unresolved question of 2019: How to pay for a transportation overhaul?

So said the State Senate’s leading Democrat, President Pro Tem Martin Looney, and leading Republican, Minority Leader Len Fasano.

The pair offered listeners a status update on the Great Transportation Fix Quest during a joint appearance Monday on WNHH FM’s “Dateline New Haven.”

Gov. Ned Lamont started the year by calling for highway tolls for both passenger vehicles and trucks in order to fund an overdue $21 billion 10-year rebuilding of roads and bridges and the rail and (allegedly) bus systems. That didn’t fly — in part because only months before he ran for office claiming he would never, ever seek passenger tolls. Just truck tolls.

So Lamont ended his first year without being able to convert his first-year-in-office political capital into passing difficult big legislation. Now, before the calendar gets too near the November elections, Democrats are seeking to pass some form of a transportation plan in a January special session.

Fasano said on “Dateline” that people have lost confidence in government to spend money the way it promises, and therefore won’t trust government to use toll money long-term on transportation rather than divert it to other uses. “The lottery was going to be for education. Casinos were going to be for municipal aid,” he said. “Promises were made that never came true.

Looney embraced Lamont’s latest plan to fund the 10-year transportation plan — now pegged at $19 billion — with the trucks-only tolls on bridges. He argued that a constitutional amendment created a transportation “lockbox” can provide the guarantee needed for toll receipts to be spent as promised.

Fasano said he agrees with the goal of finding the money (he pegged the figure at $18.6 billion) for a 10-year transportation fix. His caucus has produced an alternative plan that avoids any tolls. He noted that Rhode Island passed a trucks-only toll plan — and that is currently mired in a protracted legal challenge. Why pass a plan that might turn out to be illegal and need to be cashiered, he asked? The Republican alternative plan would remove $1.5 billion out of the state’s rainy day fund, use the money to pay off some of the state’s pension debt, then devote the subsequent savings on annual debt service payments to fund the transportation plan.

Looney countered that he believes the Rhode Island plan will survive the court challenge, and argued that it would be a mistake to raid the rainy day fund. The state has worked hard to build that fund back up to 12 percent of the budget; analysts have rewarded the state with ratings upgrades.

“It is important to preserve that rainy day fund until we get to 15 percent,” Looney argued.

The Republican plan has also raised concerns about the state’s ability to address an expected recession in the near future.

Fasano countered that the fund would still have $1.2 billion in it. That’s far more than the state has needed to draw down in past economic downturns, he said. And he predicted that the for self-interested reasons, politicians in Washington will not allow a recession to begin taking hold at least through the 2020 election season.

As Hartford’s top legislative Democrat and Republican, Looney and Fasano have forged a cordial and productive working relationship that stands in contrast to the national political moment. They are able to disagree respectfully, continue to negotiate, and find common ground — especially on health care legislation. They have shepherded to passage bipartisan measures addressing medical office “facility fees” in the past. The two predicted that the 2020 legislative session will see more bipartisan health care legislation. They said they’re open to laws allowing the import of lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada, or instance, and the funding of “navigators” to guide patients through the ever-more-complex health care system.

The senators have played an influential role in the debate over proposed expansion of the runway at Tweed-New Haven Airport. Looney and Fasano represent the sections of New Haven and East Haven, respectively, that house the airport. “There is a path to making Tweed more of a viable airport,” Looney said Monday. For that to happen, he said, Tweed must produce more “community benefits” (like more home soundproofing) for East Shore neighbors and shift its entrance to the East Haven side so travelers would drive there along commercial Hemingway Avenue rather than the residential Annex and Morris Cove. Fasano predicted that a state study will show that it makes more sense to expand commercial service at Sikorsky Airport rather than Tweed. If Tweed is to expand, he said, corporate interests pushing the expansion should foot the bill. “Yale and Yale-New Haven talk about the need for this. They have the money,” he said. “They should put the money where their mouth is.”

Click here to watch the video to watch the full discussion with State Sens. Martin Looney and Len Fasano on WNHH’s “Dateline New Haven.”