Legislative panel backs tolls, but bill faces uncertain future

Traffic headed toward Hartford

The legislature’s Transportation Committee approved a bill Friday that would return tolls to Connecticut highways after more than three decades.

But the measure, which also would reduce the retail gasoline tax by 2.5 cents, faces a steep uphill climb if it ever is to become law.

Democrats hold a slim edge on the panel, which voted 19-16 along party lines to send the measure to the House of Representatives.

The gasoline tax, which currently stands at 25 cents per gallon, would be reduced by a half penny annually over five years under the bill.

Connecticut removed the last tolls from its highways in 1985.

The issuing of restoring them drew considerable attention two years ago after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy offered a plan to spend $100 billion over 30 years to transform Connecticut’s aging, clogged highway and rail networks into a modern, efficient system.

A gubernatorial panel in January 2016 laid out $42 billion in revenue options — including tolls and gasoline tax increases — to fund long-term transportation initiatives. But the governor insists he will not press for them until lawmakers back a constitutional “lockbox” amendment to safeguard those revenues for transportation.

Malloy’s fellow Democrats in the legislature have been wary of endorsing a constitutional amendment to insulate transportation spending from future budget cuts.

Several Democratic legislators have said that as long as other priorities, such as education, health care, social services and municipal grants, are at risk of being cut to balance state finances, then transportation must be on the table as well.

Further complicating matters, the governor’s budget staff estimates that the Special Transportation Fund within the state budget will finish this fiscal year $17.1 million in deficit.

And while the fund has a $142 million reserve, which could cover deficits for a few years, nonpartisan fiscal analysts say the fund will begin running deficits year after year starting in July 2018.

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