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Updated: November 7, 2019

Lamont officially launches $21B, 10-year transportation plan

Gov. Ned Lamont on Thursday aired his $21 billion transportation plan at the Hartford Business Journal and CTrides inaugural Transportation Showcase in Farmington.

Gov. Ned Lamont Thursday officially launched a long-awaited 10-year, $21 billion transportation plan that includes tolling and federal borrowing to pay for improvements to highways, mass transit, airports and ports.

Lamont launched the plan -- dubbed “CT2030” -- at a Transportation Showcase at Farmington’s Jackson Laboratory attended by many movers and shakers in Connecticut’s business community and transportation experts.

“A lot of you know a lot about transportation, and you can be incredibly credible,” Lamot said to the crowd. “I’d also urge you to talk to your legislators… . I urge you to weigh in, weigh in with your mayor, do all the intelligence you can to figure out how we get this done.”

While touting the plan’s ability to reduce travel times and improve overall rail service, Lamont also acknowledged that the 30-30-30 plan he pitched earlier this year to establish rail service from Hartford to Stamford to New York that takes 90 minutes total, was overly ambitious. 

But he said his new scaled-down proposal will still have a significant impact. 

“That was, I guess, a bridge too far,” Lamont said. “[But] I can get more frequent rail service in and out of Waterbury… we can change out all of the railroad cars and bring them up to speed and with 5G capabilities.”

Lamont’s transportation plan would touch every aspect of Connecticut’s highway and rail system over the next decade, expanding and improving Metro-North, unclogging highway bottlenecks (by more than 20 minutes in a few cases), replacing aging bridges and connecting Bradley International Airport to a more robust regional rail system. 

To finance a vision Lamont says is vital to economic growth, the governor would rely on a hybrid plan that combines a greatly down-sized version of the poorly received tolls system he proposed in February with elements of the Republican alternative that prioritizes current bonding capacity on transportation, mixing in a new reliance on low-cost federal financing.

Passenger car tolls of 50-cents to $1 would be charged on 14 bridges, with 20 percent discounts to Connecticut drivers with EZ pass transponders, dropping the cost to 40 cents or 80 cents depending on time of day.  Heavy trucks would pay between $3.50 and $7.

The CT2030 blueprint offers everything Lamont’s original effort did not: It draws a vivid picture of what the plan would buy and how commutes would be improved by better highways, safer bridges and commuter rail cars that could reach speeds of 110 miles per hour and offer modern conveniences of wi-fi and mobile charging.

A website went live Thursday, allowing residents to explore what the new rail and highway system would look like, what changes it could deliver and what it would cost. To sell it, Lamont must overcome nine-months of controversy over an original tolls proposal that betrayed a campaign promise to toll only trucks.

The administration acknowledges that the botched presentation in February greatly complicates the current task, costing time and political capital the new governor can ill afford. The delay in overhauling the original plan has pushed the debate ever closer to 2020, when every member of the General Assembly is up for election and Lamont is not.

CT2030 offers a portion of tolls revenue to affected communities, building a constituency for passage. And it responds to complaints by small businesses that tolls would be ruinous, effectively capping their tolling costs. Within a 24-hour period, any vehicle equipped with a transponder would not pay more than one round-trip user fee per gantry.

The improvements to Metro-North would answer the calls by business leaders in Fairfield County for a faster and more reliable ride into New York City, and they address long-ignored needs by modernizing signals that currently require slower trips than decades ago and replacing century-old swing bridges prone to failure. Those elements are intended to not only meet needs, but entice skeptical down-state Republican lawmakers.

To highway commuters, Lamont points to the I-84 widening project in Waterbury that the Department of Transportation says has reduced rush-hour travel time from 30 minutes to 4 minutes, cut monthly traffic crashes from 38 to 3, and saved Connecticut drivers 9,300 hours a day.

The plan calls for a study of bringing significant commercial air services to either Tweed in New Haven or Sikorsky in Stratford.

“In CT2030, roads will be swift and safe, trains will be fast and functional, and travel across our state will be quicker, safer, more convenient, and more reliable. Our residents deserve the economic growth and time with their families that this investment will unleash,” the administration says in its summary pitch.

Photo | Contributed
An electronic tolling gantry.

How we’ll pay for it

While Lamont has briefed lawmakers, one of the keys to passage will be vetting the complex plan for financing, something that cannot begin in earnest until the non-partisan Office of Fiscal Analysis is able to begin reviewing the numbers and rationale behind them.

The governor proposes to restore billions in sales tax receipts to transportation, pump $16 million annually into affected communities, and set new efficiency quotas for the Department of Transportation. Net toll receipts, once projected at $740 million per year, now approach $320 million.

Lamont would dedicate a huge chunk of that take, an average of $136 million per year, to pay cash for projects, saving millions in annual interest costs. Connecticut currently finances nearly all work with state borrowing and federal grants — an approach Lamont has questioned repeatedly.

Connecticut now spends about $1.6 billion per year on its aging, overcrowded transportation network — about $400 million less than DOT officials say is necessary to maintain a state of good repair and make key strategic enhancements. DOT operations and borrowing for transportation are now funded through a Special Transportation Fund that is supported by fuel taxes, fees and certain sales taxes.

It is approaching insolvency. Lamont’s plan promises a return to solvency, plus a 15 percent reserve fund, without increasing sales and income taxes.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who struggled with budget deficits throughout much of his tenure, spent much of his second term pushing for a legal “lockbox” — an amendment to the state Constitution to prohibit officials from using transportation revenues for other purposes. And while voters ratified the lockbox amendment in 2018, legislators wouldn’t back tolls for Malloy.

Lamont was accused of violating the lockbox — in spirit if not by letter of the law — when he unveiled his original plans for tolls and a transportation rebuild.

The Democratic governor irked Republican legislators in particular when he proposed scaling back a previously approved plan to dedicate a portion of sales tax receipts for transportation and its adds to the political suspicions he faces with the GOP and the public at large. The administration reasoned this was legally permissible since the gradually escalating transfers — though already adopted in law — hadn’t actually occurred yet.

In an overture to the GOP, Lamont’s latest plan puts the state’s finances back on the original transfer schedule starting in 2022.

But that also would make it harder for Lamont to keep overall state finances in balance during the second half of his term. The Special Transportation Fund would gain and the General Fund would lose  $276 million in the 2021-22 fiscal year and almost $370 million the year after that.

By 2030, sales tax transfers to transportation will have exceeded $3.6 billion if the governor’s plan is approved.
Lamont also hopes to overcome that resistance by minimizing the revenue raised by tolls in his plan.

A 20 percent discount for Connecticut E-Z pass holders and a one-toll-per-day-per-gantry policy are expected to save motorists more than $90 million per year.

The administration estimates 61 percent of the $318 million tolls would generate annually — after discounts — would come from car drivers, while the remainder would come from trucks.

And the reduced scale of the tolling plan comes with a trade-off: less revenue from motorists means less road, bridge and rail repairs.

The state’s $1.6 billion annual investment in transportation work would rise beyond the $2 billion mark four times between now and 2030. But it only would average $1.9 billion per year over the coming decade.

In other words, legislators would be asked to take the political heat for enacting tolls and the transportation rebuild investment still is not projected to reach the full level requested by DOT officials.

These are the 14 bridges that would be rebuilt or improved with money raised by tolls. The exact placement of the tolling gantries is unclear — though one of them is effectively in New York, thanks to an oddity of the interstate highway system.

These are the projects and the construction costs:

  • I-95 over Metro-North in Stamford. Cost: $20 million to $25 million.
  • I-95 in Norwalk and Westport. Cost: $70 million to $130 million.
  • I-95 West Haven, reconstructing Exit 43 and replace bridge over Metro-North. Cost $65 million  to $90 million.
  • I-95 East Lyme, interchange improvements and bridge replacement. Cost: $140 million to $220 million.
  • I-95 New London and Groton, Gold Star bridge reconstruction. Cost: $300 million to $415 million.
  • I-84 Newtown,  reconstruct Rochambeau Bridge over the Housatonic River. Cost: $70 million to $110 million.
  • I-84 Waterbury, reinforcing the mixmaster. $235 million to $260 million.
  • I-84 West Hartford, replacing crossing over Berkshire Road. Cost $75 million to $110 million.
  • I-91 Hartford, Charter Oak Bridge improvements. Cost: $300 million to $330 million.
  • I-395 Plainfield, reconstruction bridge over Moosup River. Cost: $15 million to $20 million.
  • Route 8 Waterbury, strengthen bridges south of Mixmaster. Cost: $20 million to $35 million.
  • Route 9 Middletown, elevate highway and remove traffic lights. $90 million to $160 million.
  • I-684 Greenwich, bridge over Byram River. Cost: $12.9 million.
  • Route 15 Norwalk, improve connections between Route 15 and Route 7. Cost: $160 million to $200 million.

Lamont’s plan also hinges on the DOT to address a longstanding challenge and improve its efficiency at launching and managing new projects. Starting in 2022, the department would be required to enhance the capital program by $33 million in annual savings. For example, the DOT would be expected to rely more heavily on “design-build projects” which rely on a single firm to provide both design and construction services.

CT Mirror reporter Mark Pazniokas contributed to this report.

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