Lamont prepares better case for why state needs tolls

Labor Day is now in the rear-view mirror, so apparently there is no special summer session on tolls up ahead after all.

Recall that a couple of weeks before the June 5 closing of the 2019 legislative session, Gov. Ned Lamont said a vote on introducing electronic tolls would await a special summer session. The governor said he wanted to focus on completing the state budget on time. Translation: He didn’t have the votes for tolls.

He still doesn’t.

Lamont needs to win over 76 of 91 House Democrats and at least 18 of 22 Senate Democrats. Unless the Democratic governor picks up Republican votes, and there is no indication he will, those are the minimums necessary for passage.

Maybe many state Republican senators and House members sincerely oppose tolls because they are concerned that a track record of not using money as intended will continue in this state; and that the hundreds of millions of dollars collected from tolls wouldn’t go to improve highways and other transportation infrastructure.

But Republicans also recognize their opposition is politically smart. If Democrats did use their majorities to implement tolls, Republicans in 2020 could paint Democrats as the party that is bringing toll fees to the daily work commute and themselves as the party that opposed them and, if placed in power, would block them.

Even if Democrats fail to act on tolls, Republicans can still run on the issue, contending Democrats will be the party to introduce tolls if re-elected to legislative majorities. In refusing to back tolls, this is the political reality many Democratic lawmakers are missing — Republicans are going to hit them on the issue anyway, so that might as well do the right thing.

Tolls are the only practical way Connecticut can raise the money it needs for its transportation system.

The Connecticut Mirror reports that the Lamont administration is preparing a new strategy, a transportation reboot, led by Chief of Staff Ryan Drajewicz. This new approach, CT 2030, will provide a 10-year plan for priority transportation projects and make the case for specific benefits that will result — less congestion, quicker commutes, increased economic activity — if the state has the money to get the job done.

Done right, this reboot should help Lamont make a better case for tolls. Democratic lawmakers would be better positioned to argue they are not providing tolls simply as one more tax, but instead to improve the quality of life in their districts and drive the economy.

Still, it will come back to the willingness of Democratic lawmakers to cast the difficult, but correct, vote.

Fuel taxes, the primary source of money for the Special Transportation Fund, are not enough to get the job done. Improving fuel efficiency in motor vehicles will lower revenues from the fuel tax. And many of the drivers that travel through Connecticut never gas up and pay that tax.

According to the state Department of Transportation, Connecticut needs at least $2 billion annually to make necessary improvements to the infrastructure, while maintaining the existing system. Current revenue sources bring in $700 million to $800 million, and federal funding is about $700 million. Tolls would provide an estimated $800 million annually to close the gap.

The Republican alternative, called “Prioritize Progress,” is bad fiscal policy. It would use $700 million in annual borrowing, to be repaid out of the General Fund, to pay for transportation needs. This would not tap out-of-state drivers but instead pay for transportation improvements on the backs of state taxpayers. Republicans say borrowing could be diverted from other projects, but it is unlikely the legislature can be counted on to do so year after year.

Tolls provide a reliable revenue source that comes from the people using the transportation system. This is why surrounding states have tolls.

Lamont has mishandled this issue from the start. In the 2018 campaign he did not make the case for general tolls, instead offering the far more politically palatable proposal of tolling trucks only. That would not raise the money necessary, a fact Lamont, ahem, recognized after winning election. The flip-flop created a trust factor.

Further damaging his credibility, Lamont, to balance the budget, asked the legislature to cancel the use of $170 million in sales tax revenue that had been earmarked for the transportation fund, using the sleight of hand toll opponents say they fear if toll revenues start pouring in.

So, yes, Lamont badly needs a restart, but he also needs to be more deft at the most vital of political skills — lining up votes.

 

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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