WESTPORT, CT – Around 400 Connecticut residents turned out to offer their opinions to Gov. Ned Lamont and Democratic lawmakers about a proposal to improve transportation with a plan that is funded partly with truck-only tolls.
Lamont said that over the past year he’s heard from business owners who tell him the reason Connecticut has been last in job creation over the past decade is the transportation system.
“Our rail is slower today than it was 10 years ago and 30 years ago,” Lamont said. “You all know that our roads are slower.”
Lamont is trying to use every vestige of his political capital to persuade the Democrat-controlled legislature to approve his $19.4 billion transportation plan over Republican opposition.
While a group opposing tolls boycotted the forum after calling for these types of public forums, there were those in the audience who opposed tolls and got to ask their questions.
Diane A. of Westport said she’s concerned this is just another way the state is trying to increase taxes.
She said she’s afraid “it’s an easy segue to having tolls on everybody.”
It’s an argument the anti-tolls group, “No Tolls CT,” has been making for months.
She also said since the gas tax was supposed to be paying for transportation improvements she wonders what happened to all that money.
“We all love our state, but we’re concerned about how money is being spent,” said.
Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport, said he doesn’t view truck-only tolls as a tax.
“I really do view this as a user fee,” he said.
He said the maximum amount a large truck would pay in Connecticut for a toll would be $15. He said it costs $100 for a large truck to cross the George Washington Bridge in New York.
He said he would like tolls to be levied on all motor vehicles, but “there just are not votes for it in the legislature.” Tolling all motor vehicles wouldn’t be allowed under the current proposal, but it’s unclear how much they can legislate.
Lamont said the gas tax revenue has been declining due to increased fuel efficiency and the introduction of electric vehicles. He said they are doing the best job with the revenue they have, but need to keep up with the “state of good repair.”
Department of Transportation Commissioner Joseph Giulietti said that under the previous plan that included tolling all vehicles, 40% of the revenue would have come from out-of-state drivers. Now, under the truck-only toll plan, it’s estimated 50% of the revenue will come from out-of-state trucks.
He said large trucks don’t stop in Connecticut for gas, so there’s no additional revenue from these trucks that do damage to Connecticut’s roads.
Rep. Laura Devlin, R-Fairfield, who is the ranking member on the Transportation Committee, said if it’s “overweight trucks that are causing all the damage to our roads then why aren’t we opening the weigh stations?”
She said they seemed to be focused on the type of vehicle and not necessarily the weight of the vehicle, “so why are they excluding certain ones?”
Giuletti said their plan is fashioned after the Rhode Island one and includes the same type of vehicles.
There may be future plans to implement new technology and new portable weigh stations, but it was unclear if that’s part of the latest transportation proposal.
Devlin said she hasn’t seen a draft of the legislation, but it’s her understanding that only 1% of the revenue will be captured through truck tolling.
It’s estimated that truck-only tolls would bring in between $150 million to $175 million a year.
That revenue will then be used to leverage low-interest federal loans for improvements on 12 different bridges in Connecticut. The plan is also to use $100 million in general obligation bonds to help fund a 10-year, $19.4 billion transportation plan.
Some in the audience questioned lawmakers about the decision to “raid” the special transportation fund.
Haskell, a freshman lawmaker, explained they haven’t taken money from the special transportation fund. Instead, they slowed the amount of new car sales tax revenue, which was added to the special transportation fund to keep it solvent.
Haskell said it’s like if he gave $100 a month to NPR and then decided he was having a tough time and asked NPR to lower the amount to $50 a month before going back to his $100 monthly subscription.
“You would not possibly claim that I had stolen $50 from NPR,” Haskell said. “That would be ludicrous and yet that’s the political reality in Connecticut.”
He said that’s the same thing that happened with the new car sales tax revenue.
Devlin disagreed with Haskell’s take on the special transportation funds.
“I am astounded that they continue to mischaracterize raiding verses diverting,” Devlin said. She said they pushed out the new car sales tax revenue on a schedule that doesn’t start for another year.
Haskell said he wanted his constituents to walk away from the discussion Sunday with the number “$15.6 billion”. That’s the amount the state has to spend over the next decade to keep the roads in a “state of good repair.” He said there are a lot of things they want to do like open weigh stations, but “we’re just not able to because we don’t have the revenue at the moment.”
Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said they all want to get this done as soon as possible, it’s just a matter of working through the issues. According to Lamont, those have been addressed.
Last week, the Senate Democratic caucus asked for a few things to be added to the legislation in exchange for the necessary 18 votes.
On Sunday, Lamont believed all those issues had been “resolved.”
He said the legislature is drafting the final bill and a vote is expected shortly but declined to put a timeframe on debate.
Duff said they were working to finalize legislation and a vote could be held as soon as next week, or right before the start of the Feb. 5 session.
“We all want to get this done as soon as possible,” Duff added.