Lamont reverses himself, will offer plan to toll cars and trucks

Gov. Ned Lamont reversed himself Saturday, announcing he will propose electronic tolling on cars as well as trucks when he unveils his first state budget Wednesday.

Lamont, who insisted frequently throughout the campaign he would only support tolls on trucks, conceded in a Saturday op-ed piece what transportation advocates had been saying for months: tolling on trucks would not produce sufficient revenue.

“Beyond an inconvenience, the crushing congestion we experience on I-95, I-91, I-84 and the Merritt Parkway, in particular, is a real challenge we must address and overcome if we are to maximize our economic development potential,” the governor wrote. “Our proximity in mileage to New York City means nothing if it takes 90 minutes to get there from Stamford on the road, and over an hour by train."

Tolling trucks alone “would provide at least some revenue to maintain our system, though not enough to upgrade it,” Lamont added.

Connecticut could mitigate toll costs on its residents by maximizing E-Zpass discounts, especially for frequent drivers, the governor wrote. Another option would be to increase the Earned Income Tax Credit within the state income tax system, but this credit only is available to poor, working households.

The governor opposes increasing state fuel taxes. “Gasoline tax revenues have been flat for 10 years and are expected to begin declining as cars become more efficient, and as the sales of electric vehicles increase,” he wrote.

A 2018 study by the Department of Transportation projected tolls could raise as much as $1 billion per year, though the state’s net gain also would depend on the level of discounts provided to Connecticut motorists.

Lamont tipped his hand on tolls earlier this week when he proposed a new “debt diet” to reduce annual state borrowing.

That “diet” pertained to general obligation bonds — which largely are issued to finance municipal school construction and capital projects at public colleges and universities. Transportation infrastructure projects largely are paid for with a combination of federal grants and state bonding. And those state bonds usually are repaid using resources — such as gasoline tax receipts — from the budget’s Special Transportation Fund.

But over the past two fiscal years, as Connecticut officials have struggled to agree on new funding options for transportation, they’ve dedicated $250 million per year in G.O. bonding for transportation work.

Lamont’s new “debt diet” puts an end to using those G.O. bonds for transportation purposes.

“I cannot support this type of borrowing to pay for ongoing and continuous repairs and upgrades — it is not sustainable or wise,” he wrote.

Lamont’s Republican opponent in last November’s election, Bob Stefanowski, charged repeatedly throughout the campaign that Lamont would violate his pledge and recommend tolls on all types of vehicles.

“I’m saddened by the fact that there’s yet another politician who says one thing and does another,” said House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby. “He either didn’t have enough information to speak about it in an intellectually honest way or he was just saying something to get elected. Either one is not good.”

Klarides said she believes the House Republican Caucus generally opposes tolls on any vehicles.

“Governor Lamont’s announcement that he will be proposing tolls on all Connecticut residents is a disappointing step backward. It’s a false choice of tolls versus no tolls, when in fact other solutions to properly fund transportation do exist,” said Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven. “In addition, telling people not to worry because residents will only have to pay ‘discounted’ tolls is a disingenuous attempt to curtail criticism. Currently, residents do not pay any tolls in Connecticut. So you can tout a ‘discount’ all you want, but the truth is families are going to be paying more than they already do today if tolls are installed.”

Don Shubert, president of the Connecticut Construction Industry Association, applauded Lamont’s decision on tolls.

“It’s well settled that Connecticut’s transportation infrastructure and congestion are among the worst in the nation,” Shubert said. “It’s going to take billions to correct the situation and this is the only way we can think of where the Connecticut taxpayers are not going to have to pay 100 percent of the bill.”

The DOT study estimated about 40 percent of toll receipts would come from out-of-state motorists.

A transportation policy study group appointed by Lamont just after the election recommended that he set aside this pledge and impose tolls on all vehicles.

The group, composed of transportation advocates, planners, state and municipal leaders, labor officials and others also recommended discount transit passes for all public college and university students, a new state program to leverage private investment in transportation upgrades, and a streamlined hiring process to improve an under-staffed state Department of Transportation.

Lamont’s predecessor, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy advocated frequently for electronic tolling on all vehicles during his last two years in office.

Malloy warned repeatedly that unless Connecticut devotes more revenues to transportation, the state will be hard pressed to do anything more than maintain an aging, overcrowded transportation system that is hindering economic development. Projects that would fall into limbo, he predicted, include: completing the rebuild of the “Mixmaster” junction of Interstate 84 and Route 8, replacing the elevated section of I-84 in Hartford, or widening Interstate 95 in the state’s southwestern corner.

Keith M. Phaneuf is a reporter for The Connecticut Mirror (www.ctmirror.org). Copyright 2019 © The Connecticut Mirror.

kphaneuf@ctmirror.org

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