Traffic on Interstate 84. Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie.com

Gov. Ned Lamont stepped away from the Transportation and Climate Initiative on Tuesday, telling reporters he would not continue to seek legislative approval as climbing gas prices made the multi-state agreement on fuel emissions a hard sell. 

For the past year, Lamont has been an advocate for the cap-and-trade program that would require fuel sellers to buy allowances for pollution resulting from vehicle exhaust. In December, he committed Connecticut as one of three initial states in a program that was expected to result in higher gas prices.  

But enacting the program required approval from lawmakers and the state’s Democratic-controlled legislature never raised it for a vote. Republicans and fuel sellers branded the initiative a new gas tax and held rallies across the state in opposition. 

On Tuesday Lamont said he would not pursue highway tolls, as he had unsuccessfully proposed earlier in his term, and he would not seek approval for TCI. 

“Look, I couldn’t get that through when gas prices were at a historic low,” the governor said. “So I think the legislature’s been pretty clear. That’s going to be a tough rock to push when gas prices are so high, so no.”

Gov. Ned Lamont talks with Republican Party Chairman Ben Proto

The governor’s comments came a day after he attended a bill signing ceremony in Washington, D.C. for a recently-passed transportation infrastructure funding package. The $1 trillion bill is expected to send more than $5 billion in federal funding to Connecticut and allow the state to compete for more $100 billion in additional grants. 

The Transportation and Climate Initiative was expected to fund environmental and clean transportation projects, but Lamont has often touted both the initiative and highway tolls as tools to help Connecticut qualify for federal support. 

On Tuesday, he said the state was well-positioned to compete without either option due to increased revenue as a result of rising gas prices and a recently-approved highway user tax on large tractor-trailer trucks set to take effect next year. 

“We have to put up our share. So no ‘Yippie, the feds have bailed us out, we don’t have to do our share.’ But we can do our share without tolls,” the governor said. “We’ve been there, done that, that’s not happening.”

Proponents of TCI have continued to work on building support for the program in the legislature since it failed to pass during this year’s session. Supporters in the House have said the bill would have passed the chamber if it had been raised. 

Save the Sound Climate and Energy Attorney Charles Rothenberger said the “governor’s apparent abandonment of his top climate priority is incredibly disappointing.”

“Climate change won’t wait for when it’s politically convenient,” Rothenberger said. “If our state’s leaders take climate change seriously—and especially after this past summer’s storms, they should—they need to step up to the plate and show the same urgency in their action that they’ve shown in their speeches. The cost of inaction on climate is too steep.”

Meanwhile, Senate President Martin Looney has worried publicly the increase in gas prices would have a disproportionate impact on lower-income families. Staff of Lamont’s Energy and Environmental Protection Department have met with Looney in an effort to assuage his concerns. 

House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora

As recently as Monday night, Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Katie Dykes was promoting the program during a virtual forum on Facebook with Rep. Lucy Dathan, D-Norwalk. Dykes said TCI would help Connecticut compete for grants under the new infrastructure bill. 

“We’re going to need to have revenues available, things that we can pair with our applications so we can be at the front of the line,” she said. “So in some ways now is an even more exciting time to move a program like this forward because it means that every dollar we’ll have to invest through TCI, we could leverage, really quadruple or more its impact by being able to pair it with a historic amount of federal funding.”

Following Lamont’s comments Tuesday, House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, an opponent of the initiative, said he expected Democrats to revive TCI and other revenue proposals once next year’s elections were in the rearview mirror. 

“I think the only thing that’s going to prevent tax increases this year is the fact that we’re going into an election year,” Candelora said. “Both the governor is seeking reelection and our legislature is in reelection mode. So I doubt there’s going to be a talk about taxes, but given how far they’ve pushed it, you can sure bet that after the elections, we’re going to see these taxes put right back on the table.”