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Tolls' bell has rung, so prepare to pay up, Connecticut taxpayers

Connecticut will indeed be using an increase in gas taxes, and perhaps other taxes, and not tolls to pay for its transportation needs and save the Special Transportation Fund from projected insolvency.

When Gov. Ned Lamont — who came up short when he tried to coax the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate in 2019 to back a toll plan — told reporters recently he would not be reviving the idea, I thought perhaps he was awaiting a suitor. Maybe the governor, once burned, wouldn’t make the first move, I conjectured in my Nov. 29 column, but if Democratic lawmakers, their majorities increased after this past election, were willing to try again, he would get on board.

It has since become clear Lamont won’t have a suitor and tolls will not be back on the table in the coming legislative session. With the opportunity missed in 2019, it may be years — if ever — before a governor is willing to again raise the prospect of tolls.

“That is not likely to be revisited,” said Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney when he met with The Day Editorial Board Dec. 17 via Zoom.

“(Lamont) has said he is not going to propose a toll’s bill this time,” said the New Haven Democrat. “I think he was hoping to get it done in that first part of his first term so that it would be farther away from his own reelection. I think that is not likely an issue to be brought forward this year.”

In Looney’s opinion, Lamont blew it.

The state Senate leader said if Lamont had stuck with the plan he ran for election on — assess tolls only on large trucks as Rhode Island does — it would have had sufficient support among Democratic lawmakers to pass, despite the unified opposition from Republicans.

But Lamont, recognizing that the revenues that would be raised would not be sufficient to meet the need, instead offered a comprehensive plan to toll all vehicles. When that idea was confronted with a negative outcry, the idea of placing tolls at major bridge crossings was floated. Finally, Lamont returned to his trucks-only position.

By then, said Looney, the opposition had coalesced and apprehension of the political fallout among Democratic lawmakers had grown. Still, said Looney, he had 18 votes lined up, which would have resulted in an 18-18 tie, giving Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz the tie breaker, but Lamont bailed.

Administration sources, however, add that neither the House nor Senate leadership was willing to run the bill first — in other words, jump first — and Lamont tired of the game playing and the shaky support.

In any event, I continue to believe Connecticut is making a foolish mistake. Only electronic tolling will capture revenues from the millions of out-of-state cars and trucks that pass through the state on the way to somewhere else. Using gas, or other taxes, as a revenue source leaves the burden overwhelmingly on state drivers and taxpayers.

Looney, in the same meeting with us, said he would seek legislation to apply an added tax on the capital gains and dividends income of its richest residents. It is possible, he said, that some of that revenue could be applied to transportation needs. He said he was also open to a fuel tax increase and potentially devoting more of the sales tax to transportation.

Meanwhile, the Lamont administration announced this past week Connecticut would join Massachusetts, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia in the Transportation and Climate Initiative. A fee — in other words another fuel tax — will be assessed on fuels at the wholesale level to pay for transportation improvements aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.

But at least we dodged those tolls.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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