Bad news for state economy if Lamont rolls over on tolls
Ned Lamont unveiled his revamped CT2030 transportation plan to much fanfare last week. He lined up business support, because business leaders recognize that it is hard to grow a modern economy if people and goods cannot get around. He lined up labor support, pointing to the 26,000 construction jobs his plan would generate annually over the next decade.
Gone was the ambitious but unpopular proposal introduced in the last session to install 50 gantries across Connecticut highways to electronically collect tolls and generate $720 million annually to rebuild and modernize the state's woeful transportation infrastructure.
CT2030 reduces the proposed toll gantries to 14, their location tied to the bridge repairs and unclogging of bottle necks that their toll revenues would support. To ease the burden on state commuters, drivers using an EZ Pass transponder would be assessed no more than a single toll at each gantry in any 24-hour period. Gantries would be located at the entrances to the Gold Star Bridge, the northbound component of which needs major repair; and another in East Lyme, where a dangerous stretch of Interstate 95 needs redesign and reconstruction.
Metro-North would be expanded and improved, as would service to this area by Shoreline East.
All told, CT2030 would invest $15.6 billion to upgrade the existing infrastructure and $5.5 billion in transportation enhancements.
Lamont was expecting that fewer tolls would generate more support among his fellow Democrats in the legislature.
But on Thursday, with his drive towards building support for his revamped transportation plan just starting to pick up speed, Lamont faced a roadblock from the leaders of the state Senate. They are directing him to the nearest exit, at least when it comes to tolls.
In early afternoon, Senate Republicans issued a retread version of their transportation plan "that does not rely on tolls or new taxes."
Forget about rebuilding Connecticut's bridges, Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano apparently wants to sell you one.
Republicans would invest $18 billion in transportation "by adopting smart fiscal policies, better managing state dollars and leveraging federal aid," added Sen. Henri Martin, the ranking Republican on the Transportation Committee in the prepared statement. It was not reported whether he was riding a unicorn.
The plan, as explained, would "leverage federal low interest loans," redirect bonding from other projects to transportation and tap budget reserves just as the state is starting to get on its fiscal feet.
By depending on borrowing and rejecting any use of tolls, the Republican plan would continue to place the burden for improving and maintaining the transportation system almost exclusively on state taxpayers. Using the tolling envisioned by Lamont, 38% of the revenue would have come from out-of-state drivers. It's the smarter move.
In a statement that soon followed, Fasano's Democratic counterpart, Senate President Pro Tempore Martin M. Looney, signaled he was ready to work with Fasano on a no-toll solution. Looney has made it clear he fears a high political cost could be paid in the 2020 election if Democrats pushed through Lamont's tolls without any Republicans on board.
"We appreciate Senator Fasano's plan and his continued work to find a bipartisan solution to Connecticut's transportation crisis," read the Looney statement. "We agree that our Rainy Day Fund is currently at a historically high level ..."
Why make the hard decision of creating a steady and reliable revenue stream — tolls — when you can make the easy decision of spending a surplus? Who knows, maybe it will never rain again in Connecticut.
Tellingly, Looney never issued a statement about Lamont's CT2030 plan last week.
Another governor might react forcefully to the sham Republican proposal and the insurrection in his own party, but that's not the Lamont style, by golly.
"While I appreciate Senator Fasano's proposal to partially fund much-needed infrastructure investments, taking money out of the Rainy Day Fund is a risky proposition that requires serious evaluation," read the Lamont statement.
With a weak governor and Senate leadership unserious about fixing Connecticut's woeful transportation infrastructure, expect the state's economy to remain stuck in low gear.
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On Tuesday Lamont discussed a new model, which is really the old, better model. “We’re thinking about another RFP that gives interested parties more flexibility in terms of the best idea for that property,” he said.