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Region's lawmakers say it's time to vote on Lamont's $19 billion transportation plan, but support is split over tolls

Gov. Ned Lamont, making a pitch for his $19 billion, 10-year transportation plan in the midst of his State of the State address Wednesday, joked that legislators should vote right then and there on the proposal.

"We could do it right now. Can I have a show of hands?" Lamont quipped on the opening day of the 2020 legislative session.

Both Democrats and Republicans in Connecticut agree that investment is needed in the state's roads and bridges, and there's also consensus on the price tag.

The sticking point has been how to pay for it.

"The Democrats have a plan that includes a user fee on the big tractor-trailer trucks that do most of the damage on our bridges. The Republicans have a plan to redirect money from the rainy day fund," Lamont said. "You've got two plans on the table. You're in the room where it happens and that means make it happen by casting a vote, making up your mind and getting this done."

Southeastern Connecticut lawmakers said Wednesday that they are ready to vote. But the region's delegates are split along party lines on whether they support Lamont's plan.

Republicans question the legality of tolling only trucks, given an ongoing lawsuit in Rhode Island. They think if it doesn't raise enough revenue, the administration would move to toll cars, too.

Democrats say tolls are the best way to pay for transportation improvements to avoid cuts to state programs and to avoid dipping into the rainy day fund.

Lamont's latest transportation proposal would toll large, commercial trucks with a rating of Class 8 or higher and would allow the Department of Transportation commissioner to establish rates between $6 to $13 per gantry with a discount for E-Z Pass holders.

Under the proposal, there would be 12 toll gantries, mainly located on aging bridges. Locally, the gantries would be on Interstate 95 on the Gold Star Memorial Bridge between Groton and New London and at the crossing with Route 161 in East Lyme.

Rep. Kate Rotella, D-Stonington, said she is hearing support among her constituents for trucks-only tolling, while Rep. Christine Conley, D-Groton, said she's still undecided on Lamont's latest plan.

Rep. Joe de la Cruz, D-Groton, who has long supported tolls, including on cars, said he "100% supports" the proposal.

"To see how it's been watered down and still has no support from the Republican side actually baffles me," de la Cruz said. "To me, it's an obvious solution for some of our problems."

He said if not tolls, money will be cut from other areas of the budget to pay for transportation improvement.

"No matter what, we're going to fix our bridges. We're going to get that money one way or the other, whether it's cutting school funding or cutting funding for other things to support our transportation," he said.

Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, agreed. Nolan said he and de la Cruz, joined by representatives from Lamont's office and the state Department of Transportation, are hosting a public meeting on transportation at the Public Library of New London on Thursday night, in part to "dispel untruths" floating around about the plan.

Lamont estimates that trucks-only tolls would generate about $180 million annually for the Special Transportation Fund.

Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, said the governor has been telling the legislature for a year and half that "trucks-only tolls don't generate enough revenue." She cited the lawsuit against Rhode Island by the trucking industry after that state instituted trucks-only tolls as a reason not to pursue the proposal here.

"When would any business or any municipality repeat the behavior of another municipality or another business that is in the middle of a federal lawsuit?" she said.

Somers said she's been ready to vote on a long-term transportation plan for months and that "Democrats don't have the numbers, that's why we're not voting."

She called for a forensic audit of DOT to determine how and where money is spent as well as a "real" priority list of projects. "We can't do all the work at once," she said.

Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Lyme, said he also is concerned about the trucking industry's lawsuit against Rhode Island, which if successful, he argued, could lead the Lamont administration to reverse course and toll cars as well as trucks.

"The best solution for this session is to get something done at a bipartisan level that the majority of Connecticut residents can get behind," Carney said. "Right now, a tolling component will not get us there."

Carney, Somers and other Republicans like Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, do like Lamont's idea of using low-interest federal loans to finance some of the transportation improvements.

"That's a no-brainer. I applaud him for that," Cheeseman said. "If we're going to make the investment in our infrastructure, let's do it at the lowest possible cost for the people in Connecticut."

j.bergman@theday.com

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