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Tolls turned out to be a blip on the political radar

In pre-pandemic Connecticut politics the big issue, the one some speculated could have an oversized impact on the coming November election, was whether tolls would be added to the state’s highways. That it was such a big deal seems almost quaint in retrospect.

Recall that in running for governor in 2018, Democrat Ned Lamont watered down his toll proposal to say he would only assess the fee on large trucks, a more politically palatable position. Once in office, and having calculated how much money the state would need to upgrade its deteriorating and outdated transportation system, Lamont announced plans for an extensive toll system that would assess all vehicles. Turned out there was a reason most of the states in the Northeast have tolls.

Lamont was rightfully called out for the flip-flop. He had broken a pledge that voters had used in assessing their choice for governor. The governor’s efforts to find the necessary support among Democratic legislators for his expanded toll plan — despite the party’s solid control of the House and Senate — fell flat.

What followed was Lamont’s retreat, first downsizing the administration’s plans and eventually returning to the truck-only proposal, even though it would not generate the necessary revenues and was constitutionally suspect. But even this minimalist approach could not find sufficient support among House Democrats.

I never thought tolls were the big-bad political boogeyman that apparently many Democratic lawmakers did. But unified Republican opposition and a well-organized, if not all that sizeable, opposition scared the bejesus out of them. Lamont had to run up the white flag on the issue. And still Connecticut does not have a sensible plan for how it can pay for its infrastructure needs over the next couple of decades.

In hindsight, the cowardice of many of these Democrats, and the idea that their vote to assess tolling would have been a decisive issue in this election, seems laughable. Facing a real crisis has a way of changing perspectives.

Lamont has gotten high marks, and deservedly so, for his handling of the pandemic. The strategy of the administration in shutting down much of commerce, while keeping most of manufacturing operating, worked to control the virus without totally cratering the economy. So far, the step-by-step reopening has proved successful. Unlike wide swaths of the country, which reopened prematurely, Connecticut’s COVID-19 cases and hospitalization numbers are trending down. That is what is going to be on voters’ minds.

Also on their minds will be the renewed sensibility about how Black Americans, and Hispanics, are disproportionately targeted in police stops, more likely to face tougher enforcement than white citizens, and, particularly for Black men, more likely to see those encounters escalate to a fatal encounter for the suspect.

It was Democrats last year who, after a series of police shootings involving minority suspects in Connecticut, passed a police accountability bill, despite Republican opposition in the House. The recommendations of an accountability task force — a product of the bill — has laid the groundwork for what could be sweeping reform.

There is also building support for major social reforms to address root causes of racial inequality, including disproportionate access to quality health care, inadequate schools and lack of economic opportunity.

And Connecticut Republicans have the anchor that is President Trump.

Democrats are playing to their strengths. A toll plan would, in retrospect, have proved to be a minor campaign issue. And by the time the tolls were erected in two years, and the revenues began to flow, the resulting transportation construction could have aided the economic recovery.

Instead, there is no realistic plan, no way of getting fees from out-of-state drivers. Democrats missed an opportunity, and for no good reason. Maybe, in 2021, Lamont can try again.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

 

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