The House of Representatives took two steps Tuesday — one legal and one symbolic — to move Connecticut slightly closer to the imposition of tolls on its highways.
The House narrowly approved a resolution to establish a constitutional “lockbox” amendment to safeguard revenues earmarked for transportation. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has said he would not consider any discussion of tolls unless a lockbox amendment is sent before voters on the 2018 statewide ballot.
The House also debated a bill directing the Department of Transportation to craft a plan to establish tolls. But it tabled the measure — in a pre-arranged, bipartisan deal — after 110 minutes of debate.
The question of tolling is not expected to be taken up again before the regular 2017 General Assembly adjourns Wednesday, though some supporters hope it will remain in talks during the summer special session to resolve the next two-year state budget.
“Please tell me what we are waiting for?” Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, one of the legislature’s most ardent advocate of tolls, asked the House. “We all have children. We all have grandchildren. We all have friends. It is our obligation to make the roads the best they can be.”
Noting that state analysts project Connecticut’s Special Transportation Fund will be insolvent by 2020, Guerrera said he fears Connecticut will not act until some highway tragedy happens because of deferred maintenance.
The Special Transportation Fund, which involves $1.46 billion or 7 percent of the overall state budget, is expected to finish in deficit this year. It’s $143 million emergency reserve will be reduced to $106 million.
And analysts say recurring yearly deficits are coming soon.
Lackluster growth in fuel tax receipts and a growing backlog of maintenance on an aging infrastructure translate into a $46 million deficit forecast for 2018-19 and a $93 million shortfall one year later
“We cannot afford to have another bridge collapse,” Guerrera said, a reference to the 1983 collapse of the Interstate 95 bridge over the Mianus River in Greenwich, which claimed the lives of three motorists. “And you all know it is going to happen.”
“Public safety is not an option,” said Rep. Cathy Abercrombie, D-Meriden.
Unless Connecticut provides a new revenue source for transportation, infrastructure repairs only will drain resources away from General Fund priorities such as health care and education, Abercrombie said, adding “Let’s bite the bullet and do it now.”
But critics argue that some Democrats, who hold a 79-72 edge in the House, are most interested in establishing tolls as an indirect way to raid the remaining transportation fund reserves.
Though several reports say it probably would take several years to get tolls up and running, two Democratic budget plans would tap transportation fund reserves now.
A budget proposal developed by Democratic leaders on the Appropriations Committee — but never voted on — relied on transferring $164 million in resources from transportation to the General Fund over the next two fiscal years combined.
And an updated, biennial budget proposal released in May by Democratic legislative leaders would strip $50 million from the transportation fund’s reserves.
“We skip right over the fact that we tax too much, we spend too much, and we borrow too much,” said House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, adding that the public won’t accept tolls until it is convinced officials are ready to trim state government. “We cannot skip over making the difficult decisions in this state.”
“In the long run, the citizens of the good state of Connecticut will actually be paying more than they are paying now,” said Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Saybrook.
Carney said that while out-of-state motorists may comprise a major portion of the traffic on Connecticut’s busiest interstates, local residents do the bulk of the driving on smaller-yet-busy highways such as Routes 2, 8 and 9.
Guerrera said he doesn’t necessarily like electronic tolls, “but no one has told me a better way of doing this. There’s not one vote in the General Assembly for a higher gas tax.”
The bill that was tabled would have directed the Department of Transportation to prepare a plan to establish tolls and present it to legislators in 2018.
That plan must:
- Include some form of discount for Connecticut residents.
- Provisionally reduce gasoline taxes, over several years, by at least 5 cents per gallon, provided the transportation fund is solvent.
The plan also would have to have been presented at a public hearing next year.
House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said Connecticut has a simple choice: either adopt tolls or accept an outdated transportation infrastructure that will continue to stunt economic growth.
“If you don’t do tolls, eventually, … we’re just going to have the same old, mediocre, 1970, drive-your-car-10-miles infrastructure,” Ritter said, adding that most states on the eastern seaboard have tolls. “If you want to be relevant in the 21st century, you’ve got to follow suit.”
Still, Ritter conceded there wasn’t sufficient support in the House on Tuesday to pass the tolls measure and tabled the bill.
But while the tolls debate ended in the House — at least temporarily — on Tuesday, it could still move forward later this summer.
The House voted 101-50 to recommend a “lockbox” amendment. If the Senate approves it as well, the resolution would go before voters on the ballot in 2018.
That’s because the amendment mirrors the same language the House and Senate passed by a simple majority in 2015.
The state Constitution allows a proposed amendment to be placed on the ballot if the same resolution is adopted by a bare majority in two consecutive legislative terms — which run two years each — or if adopted by the legislature just once, but by a 75 percent majority in the House and Senate.
Malloy praised his fellow Democrats in the House for moving the lockbox amendment closer to the ballot.
“Today, the House took a significant step forward for meeting our state’s infrastructure needs,” the governor said. “The fact is, modernizing our transportation networks is critical to the future economic health of our state. For too long, the state failed to make the necessary upgrades and maintenance on our roads, bridges, and railways and we are paying the price today for this neglect. We owe taxpayers a say in how the state should safeguard transportation funds from future sweeps by future legislatures or governors.”
But most Republican representatives argued the “lockbox” is not secure.
The proposed amendment states that, if ratified by voters, all resources designated for transportation will remain for that purpose for as long as the state collects or holds them.
But that doesn’t mean the lockbox system is simple.
For example, if a future legislature wanted to levy new taxes on gasoline it could use the funds outside of transportation, even though fuel taxes traditionally have gone for that purpose.
“This lockbox resolution is not locked at all,” said Rep. Laura Devlin, R-Fairfield. “In fact, it could be opened with a hairpin.”