Lamont, Democrats outflanked on tolls

Gov. Ned Lamont vacillated on how tolls could be used to pay for overhauling Connecticut’s transportation system. Many of his fellow Democrats in the legislature refused to take a definitive stand. Republicans, conversely, were steadfast in their opposition. It should not be surprising that steadfast has prevailed.

Lamont won election in 2018 campaigning on a platform to follow the lead of Rhode Island and create a truck-only tolling system on Connecticut highways to pay for the transportation upgrades that all agree the state needs. But soon after taking office, Lamont said further evaluation had convinced him that this truck-only approach was insufficient to pay for the work necessary. He called instead for an extensive electronic tolling system to assess a fee on all vehicles.

Not surprisingly, this created a major public backlash and instant credibility problems for the governor. Opponents launched No Tolls CT, an organization that has proved impressive in organizing grassroots resistance. Republicans dug in on their disapproval, recognizing the political damage Democrats faced in this unpopular proposal pushed by a flip-flopping governor. Democratic lawmakers were unnerved by the negative outcry.

In its editorials, The Day has long advocated for introducing electronic tolling on state highways as the best way to fund transportation improvements and correct highway chokepoints, restore aging infrastructure, improve mass transit options and assure a system that can enable economic growth. By tolling all vehicles, the state can capture revenue from the millions of drivers who now pass through the state and never contribute a dime toward funding the highways they use, leaving that burden largely to Connecticut taxpayers.

For that reason, we supported the governor’s all-vehicles toll proposal, while recognizing the political problems his policy reversal created. In retrospect, had Lamont stuck to the limited tolling proposal he ran on, he may well have found the votes for passage. Instead, as the 2019 session dragged on, it became clear that the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate could not find the votes to back the governor’s more extensive tolling plans.

There was talk of a taking up tolls in a special session following the 2019 legislative adjournment, then of a fall session, than of a pre-session before the regulation 2020 session. The governor kept backing up, until his heels daggled over a political cliff. A final plan called for just 12 gantries to assess tolls on tractor-trailer trucks only at bridges between Greenwich and Groton.

Still, with the 2020 election looming, the Democratic leadership — despite solid majorities in both chambers — could not confirm they had the votes to pass even this watered-down plan, with Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, having a particular problem corralling the 18 votes he would have needed for an 18-18 tie to be broken in favor of tolls by Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz.

Matters entered into the theater of the absurd with talk of a synchronized House and Senate vote, with the Democratic majorities in both chambers — fearing the other side would otherwise flinch — jumping hand-in-hand together off that cliff on which Lamont had perched them.

Republicans promised to use every procedural trick at their disposal to gum up those plans. They warned the truck-only gantries would be a pretext to eventually tolling all vehicles.

Thursday, told by legislative leaders there would be no vote as planned, Lamont gathered reporters to announce he was done. He expressed frustration with lawmakers in his party. We share it. Political courage was in short supply.

But Lamont shares the blame. He lacked the political skills to build support for his plan. His flip-flop out of the gate made the challenge much more difficult.

The question is now what. The Lamont administration contended the truck-only tolls would generate $172 million annually (we were skeptical that was high) to help underwrite a $19.1 billion transportation improvement plan. The obvious alternative is borrowing all the money and paying it back through the existing tax system, which means out-of-staters continue with their free rides.

Whatever move the governor makes next, he should leave an escape path toward revisiting tolls. Transportation, and how best to pay for it, should be debated in the House and Senate elections. Given how the issue was botched, maybe it is too late already. But perhaps the 2020 election will provide one last chance to make the case for tolls.

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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