Lamont comes full circle on tolls; let’s get on with it

Gov. Ned Lamont expended an awful lot of political capital to get back to where he started.

A week ago, Democratic legislative leaders and the governor announced they had agreed on the outline of a plan to impose electronic trucks-only tolls, using a dozen gantries on the state's highways. During the 2018 campaign, Lamont had proposed such tolling of trucks, but once elected he pushed a plan to impose tolls on all vehicle traffic, calling it necessary to generate enough revenue to meet Connecticut’s transportation needs.

More than any act, that flip-flop likely accounts for Lamont’s poor approval ratings and the lack of any “honeymoon” of goodwill typically afforded a new governor.

In retrospect, the governor needed to count the votes before sticking his neck through that particular gantry. Instead, he learned the hard way that he lacked the support necessary to implement general tolling, despite his Democratic Party having large majorities in the House and Senate.

During the last legislative session Lamont pushed a plan to construct 50 electronic tolling gantries throughout the state’s highway system. Lacking support, it never got to a vote. A month ago, the Lamont administration returned with a revamped plan of 14 gantries, targeted to locations in high need of transportation investment and part of his CT2030 plan to invest $21 billion in transportation infrastructure over the next decade.

In a subsequent meeting with Democratic senators, Lamont learned even that slimmed-down plan had no path to adoption.

The anti-toll opposition has been well organized and vocal. Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, have remained in lockstep in their opposition to tolls, showing no mood to compromise. That was again made clear when Republican leaders quickly rejected the truck-only proposal. The politics are clear enough; Republicans want the Democratic majority to fully own any toll legislation, then run against them on the issue in 2020.

Our view remains that some form of general assessment tolling on all vehicles is the best way to create the reliable revenue stream necessary to bring the state’s transportation infrastructure into the 21st century, while assuring out-of-state drivers contribute roughly 40% of that investment. It is disappointing that the Democratic majority did not show the political courage to back the governor on such a plan.

Yet the politics are what they are. Having a truck tax will provide desperately needed transportation revenues.

But we have concerns.

Will it survive a legal challenge? Rhode Island’s truck-only approach is under appeal by the trucking industry.

Can it raise the revenues needed? Lamont’s CT2030 toll plan projected to generate $320 million annually to underwrite low-interest federal financing, while a trucks-only system is expected to raise $180 million. To lower payments, Democrats say they can extend some of the low-interest federal loans over 35 years rather than 27 years envisioned in the CT2030 proposal.

Democrats are also eyeing the $2.5 billion Budget Reserve Fund, saying it if grows to exceed the statutory goal of 15% of operating costs — about $2.9 billion — it could be tapped for about $250 million to help pay for transportation.

This is a version of the more aggressive Republican plan to immediately transfer $1.5 billion out of the reserve to avoid any tolls or higher taxes. We see that approach as reckless in that it would create a budget crisis when a recession hit.

Fears are being expressed that tolls could send trucks onto to local sideroads, but that has not proved to be the case in Rhode Island. The lost time and added fuel use would cost more than the tolls.

Republicans also warn that in time the electronic tolls will be imposed on all vehicles. That could one day happen if the fees from the truck approach do not raise the necessary revenue, but it would require an act of the legislature and lawmakers would be accountable to the voters, as they should be.

What we soundly reject are suggestions that the Connecticut Constitution be amended to preclude assessing tolls on passenger cars. The constitution should not be manipulated for something as trivial as providing Democrats political cover in the 2020 legislative elections.

With increased automation and greater use of electric vehicles, who knows what the future will bring and what will be the best policies for paying for transportation infrastructure. Needlessly limiting options through a constitutional amendment would be foolish.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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