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February 22, 2019

Lamont on tolls: 'If you have any better ideas, bring them'

PHOTO | Contributed An electronic tolling gantry.

Even at a press conference overlooking the aging I-84 viaduct in Hartford, a favored backdrop for governors seeking new revenue for transportation, Gov. Ned Lamont offered no hard-sell Thursday for his “option” of tolls, demurring when asked if he was pressing legislators for their support.

“I’ve got a different relationship with the legislature than maybe they are used to in the past. I really want them at the table involved in what we are trying to do,” Lamont said. 

Instead, Lamont is trying to lead motorists and legislators to his conclusion: Only the electronic tolling of all motor vehicles will raise the revenue Connecticut needs for infrastructure, while the trucks-only proposal of his campaign would raise too little money and be subject to legal challenge by the trucking industry.

“I think at the end of the day, if we’re going to really try to accelerate fixing our roads and bridges, accelerating Metro North, getting the state going again, we need a broader tolling system,” Lamont said.

The administration’s lobbying style, both for tolls and its pitch for the elimination of many sales-tax exemptions, turns on offering alternatives to legislators.

Don’t like tolls? Then be prepared to raise the gasoline tax.

Don’t like the idea of extending the sales tax to many exempt services and products? Then be prepared to raise the sales tax rate from 6.35 percent to 7 percent. 

Lamont said he is open to any idea, so long as the numbers add up to a balanced budget. 

Lamont was joined Thursday by Melissa McCaw, who oversees the state budget as secretary of policy and management, and Transportation Commissioner Joseph Giulietti. They stood on a fifth-floor patio outside McCaw’s office, conveniently overlooking an elevated section of I-84 due for a replacement projected to cost between $2 billion and $5.3 billion.

The viaduct long has been the poster child for Connecticut’s aging transportation infrastructure.

“We’re looking at the best illustration of this need, the 50-year-old I-84 viaduct. We’re spending more than $20 million a year just to keep it in a state of good repair,” Giulietti said. “Ultimately it needs to be replaced. The stretch is the most congested in Connecticut, with more than 175,000 vehicles a day, and that’s three times more than it was designed for.” 

It’s a complex project in the design phase. Instead of a viaduct that cuts the city in two, the Department of Transportation is considering designs bringing the highway to grade, or below grade as it courses through the downtown. 

On paper, the budget Lamont proposed Wednesday lays out two tolling options: Trucks-only, and all vehicles. But in the numbers as well as the narrative, the administration clearly favors the all-vehicles approach. 

“I think it’s the best long-term solution,” Lamont said. “I think it’s something we know we can do in a timely basis. I think it gets the job done, and if people push back and say, forget it, trucks only, then we say we presented you an option.”

Budget documents show projections that tolling trucks only would raise between $45 million and $200 million per year. Tolling all vehicles would raise a projected $800 million per year. 

Both projections assume toll revenues would not be available until sometime between 2023 and 2025. McCaw said Connecticut would be hard pressed to keep up basic maintenance on roads, bridges and rails by the mid-2020s absent a full-scale approach to tolling.

“It certainly doesn’t allow us to improve and elevate” transportation infrastructure, she said.

Other aspects of Lamont’s budget assumes the eventual collection of tolls, as it shifts other resources earmarked for transportation back to the rest of the state budget.

Lamont proposed a “debt diet” that restricts bonding for school construction and capital projects at state universities. The legislature had arranged for a portion of this bonding stream, about $250 million per year, to be available for transportation work. The governor’s new budget would end that.

Lamont also wants to cancel a planned transfer of additional sales tax receipts to the budget’s Special Transportation Fund, about $90 million next fiscal year and $175 million in 2020-21.

“The reality is Gov. Lamont’s budget shortchanges transportation,” said Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven. “He is repeating the sins of past administrations, stealing from the Special Transportation Fund and crippling transportation funding.”

Fasano said Lamont is dealing a blow to transportation improvements, at least over the short term.

“His budget makes it more difficult to start infrastructure projects. It will force the state to put needed repairs on hold until tolls are up and running,” he said.

On Thursday, Lamont simultaneously defended his budget and welcomed changes by the General Assembly.

“I did the very best I could. Melissa didn’t sleep for a month doing the same thing, trying to come up with the fairest way to come up with a budget that is actually in balance,” he said. “We did that without raising the income tax. We did that without raising the rate on the sales tax.”

Lamont said one of his goals was to construct a budget with stable revenue sources, allowing lawmakers to end the annual scramble to balance the budget, which often requires reneging on promises made to municipalities or diverting revenue collected on electric bills for energy-efficiency measures. 

“Look, it ain’t an easy budget,” he said. “There’s no question about it. We inherited a bit of a mess. I think this is an honest way to get going. It’s a fair way to get going. And again, one more time, legislature: If you have any better ideas, bring them to me. My door is always open.”

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