HARTFORD, CT — After hours of closed-door discussions Tuesday, Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, emerged to tell reporters they have a “contingent consensus” on a truck-only tolling plan.
That means of the 22 Democratic Senators 18 have “not rejected the concept of a bill to toll trucks on bridges only,” Looney said.
Looney said the votes of 18 senators are still contingent on a few conditions being added to the legislation.
“One is on the issue of additional oversight of the DOT and its operations,” Looney said. “Another concern is ways to make explicit the fact that there is no support for tolls on passenger cars.”
A third issue is concerns about minority hiring and better bus transportation for urban areas where 30 to 40% of the residents don’t have cars, Looney said.
“We don’t have more than four no’s that would defeat a toll bill altogether,” Looney said declining to offer more details or say which senators are not supporting it.
Looney said he still has to confer with the House and figure out what concerns their members may have, but he remained optimistic they could get it done before February and the start of the regular legislative session.
Looney said they have to protect their members against “partisan attacks,” with the three items they want to see in the final bill.
House Democratic leadership said its caucus was comfortable that they will have the votes to pass a transportation package that includes funding from truck tolls, but they didn’t give rank-and-file lawmakers a copy of the legislation.
“There are still some details left to be negotiated between the House and the Senate,” House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said Tuesday after a closed-door meeting with his caucus.
Gov. Ned Lamont, who campaigned on truck-only tolls then switched to tolls on everyone once he was elected, is back to supporting truck-only tolls.
The issue has been central to his first year in office and has consumed most of his political capital.
“I think they’d like to get it done this month,” Lamont said Tuesday morning during a WNPR interview. “I’d like to get it done this month. You know, we put this off for about 15 years.”
The bill has not been officially drafted, according to Aresimowicz. But he still thinks they will be able to hold a public hearing and vote on the legislation before the end of January.
“Yeah there’s some questions left to be answered,” Aresimowicz said. “But I still feel really comfortable that we can move forward.”
Aresimowicz said the truck-only proposal that will net between $150 million to $175 million a year will only apply to large tractor-trailer trucks. It will not apply to buses or box trucks.
It’s unclear how much they plan to charge truckers in order to levy that amount. There are also questions about how the oversight board that would set those rates would be constituted.
“I feel very comfortable based on the conversations, and the conversations we’ve had over the last three years about our transportation infrastructure that we’re in a position to move Connecticut forward and end this debate once and for all,” Aresimowicz said.
The plan based on what lawmakers shared Tuesday assumes more than $150 million in revenue from truck-only tolls in 12 locations, and it would require the use of another $100 million in general obligation bonds.
The Democratic plan assumes leveraging federal funds at low interest rates based on the truck-only toll revenue. The original plan stretched out the repayment of the debt on those federal loans from 27 years to 35 years.
It’s unclear with less revenue from truck-only tolls how many years of repayment will be needed to raise $150 to $175 million in revenue.
House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said they could pledge more than just the truck-only toll revenue to obtain the low-interest federal loans. He said the feds don’t necessarily love that idea, but they would accept it.
Republican legislative leaders said there’s nothing new about what happened Tuesday.
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said the only thing new that happened is the revenue they expect to get from truck-only tolls is less than it was before.
“We are still strongly against tolls for all the reasons we’ve given before,” Klarides said.
She said the Democrats don’t even have a vote count, which would have been new development.
Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano said if they had the votes they would have voted already.
“If you don’t have a plan what are you vote counting?,” Fasano asked.
Klarides said they have to votes to pass this for the “last 45 years if they choose to do it. So any conversation about what we have or have not done is a moot point.”
Senate Republicans came up with a no-toll alternative that uses the Rainy Day Fund to pay down pension debt.
The 10-year, $18-billion Senate Republican plan, dubbed FASTR CT, uses the money from paying down the equity on special transportation obligation bonds, $100 million in general obligation bonds, and the new car sales tax as revenue streams to access the low-interest loans from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Build America Bureau.
Fasano said the state of Connecticut would still have $1.7 billion in the Rainy Day Fund at the end of this fiscal year if they implemented his proposal.
“We’re going to have money,” Fasano said. “… And paying down debt is not a bad way of going about solving your fiscal problems.”
That equation doesn’t work for the Lamont administration, which has worked to rebuild reserves in the Rainy Day Fund and is preparing for the next recession.
Fasano said the Democrats want to do this in a special session in January because they know the idea doesn’t have public support.
“They want to get it over with as soon as they can and are hoping that people forget about it by November,” he added. “And people will not forget about it.”
Patrick Sasser, co-founder of No Tolls CT, said the public is worried that they will flip the switch from truck-only tolls to tolls on all vehicles.
Democratic lawmakers have said they would try and do something like a bond covenant to try and guarantee no tolls on passenger cars.
Klarides said all the public knows is that lawmakers are putting in tolls that will take more money out of their pocket.
“They know they do not trust the state of Connecticut to keep their word,” Klarides said. “So they don’t want to hear about bond covenant, bond schmuvenance. They don’t know what that means and they know they don’t trust.”