Malloy keeps options open on tolls for Connecticut highways

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and   Transportation Commissioner James Redeker share a laugh at start of CT fastrak tour. (file photo)

File photo

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Transportation Commissioner James Redeker share a laugh at start of a recent  CT fastrak tour. (file photo)

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy tried to give himself more flexibility Monday to re-establish tolls, warning he would force a Capitol debate in 2015 on the costof upgrading the state’s long-neglected transportation network.

And while the governor insisted on the campaign trail last fall that two conditions must be met for tolls to be considered, he abandoned one of them – a precipitous drop in federal transportation funding – on Monday.

“What I’ve been working on is actually having a mature and detailed discussion on what it will take to turn transportation around in Connecticut,” Malloy said while answering reporters’ questions after announcing the appointment of his legal counsel.

The governor cited a report last week that attempted to analyze what Connecticut’s clogged highways and rail lines cost Fairfield County, where traffic is heaviest.

Statewide, the value of lost revenue and time to individuals and businesses “is in the billions of dollars,” Malloy said. “This didn’t happen overnight, but we probably underinvested in transportation for the better part of two generations.”

The governor added that his next biennial state budget proposal, due to the legislature on Feb. 4, would launch a review that would rely heavily on input from Connecticut businesses and taxpayers.

“Tolls are a way to pay for it; there are other ways to pay for it,” Malloy said. “I think the first and most important question is: Do the people of Connecticut want to have a world-class transportation system and a competitive transportation system? And that’s the discussion that I intend to lead.”

The Democratic governor had been less warm toward tolls over the last six months, as he campaigned for a second term amid nonpartisan projections of a $1.3 billion hole in the next budget.

Malloy told The Mirror during a one-on-one interview in late July that, “I’m not proposing tolls.”

Shortly thereafter, a coalition of more than three dozen transportation advocacy groups, including many contractors and construction trades, challenged Malloy and his GOP challenger – Tom Foley – to support increased funding to overhaul the state’s aging infrastructure, even if it means tax increases or tolls.

And at a Sept. 15 forum hosted by the coalition in North Haven, the governor said he would be willing to hear others’ proposals to add tolls “if there’s a doomsday” scenario in which federal transportation aid to states drops dramatically.

In that event, the governor added at the time, he would also require an amendment to the state constitution or some other legal “lock-box” mechanism to ensure toll revenues are used solely for transportation.

When asked Monday about the “doomsday” condition, Malloy said, “If I used those words, that was not my intention, let’s put it that way. I have a lot of debates and a lot of discussions about it. The salient point that I consistently made around my issue with tolls and other increases in revenue to pay for transportation is that those dollars absolutely, positively have to be lock-boxed so that they cannot be gotten to.”

Though the state is expected to collect 40 percent more in fuel tax receipts this year than it did a decade ago – when officials ordered a series of increases – the transportation system hasn’t made similar progress.

  • The Department of Transportation has reported almost $12 billion worth of major, long-term “unfundable” projects – such as extending Route 11 to the southeastern shoreline or replacing the elevated section of Interstate 84 in Hartford.
  • The state has more than 410 bridges with at least one structural deficiency – 20 percent more that a decade ago.
  • Nearly $2.9 billion in financing for transportation projects has been approved — but the funds actually haven’t been borrowed and spent.
  • Although this year’s state budget technically adds funding for 103 new DOT positions, the number of full-time posts actually filled stood at 2,971 on Dec. 1, which is 111 fewer than the department had when the current budget began on July 1, and 214 below the budgeted level. The Malloy administration has been freezing most vacant positions across state government to close a small budget deficit this year.

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