Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford Jacqueline Rabe Thomas /
State Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford Jacqueline Rabe Thomas /

The House chairman of the General Assembly’s tax-writing panel announced Tuesday he will propose adding 4 cents per gallon to Connecticut’s gasoline tax to avert a crisis in the transportation program.

Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, said this proposal would not eliminate the need for a more in-depth debate to address Connecticut’s transportation financing needs for decades to come.

But unless some action is taken during the regular 2018 session — which begins Feb. 7 — Rojas said he’s convinced capital projects will stall, rail and bus fares will rise, and key transit services will be canceled.

“Something has to be done, and tolls are still several years out,” Rojas said. “We have an immediate need for revenue.”

Rojas, who posted his plans Tuesday on Twitter, then discussed them in an interview with The Mirror.

The East Hartford lawmaker echoed concerns raised over the past two months by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who has alerted everyone from Wall Street investors to business leaders to state legislators about the need for immediate action.

Those who are honest about our transportation needs will agree. I plan to introduce a bill to raise the gas tax by 4 cents to expand the conversation.

— Jason Rojas (@jrojas9) January 23, 2018

“An investment in transportation is an investment in Connecticut’s economic future,” Malloy spokesman Leigh Appleby said.  “We appreciate Representative Rojas’s recognition that we must take immediate action to keep the Special Transportation Fund solvent and his willingness to put real ideas on the table. Governor Malloy will put forward his own detailed plan before the start of the next legislative session, and we look forward to working with the legislature to find a long-term solution.”

The Special Transportation Fund, which holds about $1.51 billion this fiscal year and represents about 7 percent of the overall budget, is in crisis. The administration says the existing transportation program is headed for a series of annual deficits starting with the fiscal year that begins July 1, and would reach insolvency by mid-2020.

Growth in gasoline tax receipts has been meager for much of the past decade, in part because of improving vehicle efficiency.

Meanwhile, debt costs on transportation bonds –involving both outstanding debt and anticipated borrowing in the next few years — are surging rapidly as Connecticut tries to reverse decades of deferred maintenance and other infrastructure investment.

Debt costs alone are projected to jump 38 percent over the next three years combined — and 73 percent over the next five.

Rojas said he believes raising the retail gasoline tax, which currently stands at a flat 25-cents-per-gallon, is the most transparent way to address the transportation fund’s needs.

Connecticut also imposes a wholesale levy on gasoline when it is delivered to stations. That cost typically then is built into the price charged to motorists.

“I thought the excise tax was the clearest to the general public,” Rojas said. “I think there’s a lot of concern among the general public about transportation. And I think, when public officials are honest with them about the need, and if they have faith that the money will be used for transportation, they will understand.”

Rojas said he also anticipates support from Connecticut’s business community, which includes many vocal advocates for greater transportation investment.

The head of the Connecticut Construction Industry Association, Don Shubert, recently warned a major contraction in the state’s transportation program could cause hard-to-reverse damage to a construction industry already in retreat.

Earlier this month Malloy outlined nearly 400 capital projects worth $4.3 billion that would be suspended over the next five years because of inadequate funding for transportation.

“Considering the governor’s comments, and all indications from the state’s presentation to the (Wall Street) credit rating agencies, it’s clear that the revenues flowing into the Special Transportation Fund are not sufficient,” Shubert said Tuesday.

The alternatives, both project and service cutbacks, “are in nobody’s best interest right now,” Shubert said, adding he believes many businesses would back Rojas’ proposed tax hike.

Rojas added he is willing to discuss options for phasing in the tax increase, but insists something needs to be done now — regardless of the fact that 2018 is a state election year and legislators traditionally steer clear of tax increases during those times.

“I can imagine that the reaction is going to be pretty significant” from some legislators, Rojas said. “But we can’t wait.”

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

Leave a comment