Dozen House Democrats vow new drive for tolls despite rocky road

Modern tolls use overhead gantries like this one on the Massachusetts Turnpike (Arnold Reinhold / Creative Commons)

Modern tolls use overhead gantries like this one on the Massachusetts Turnpike (Arnold Reinhold / Creative Commons)

A dozen House Democratic legislators pledged Monday to propose a bill in the upcoming legislative session to establish electronic tolling throughout highways in Connecticut – a pitch that has been made numerous times in recent years but has failed to win approval.

The measure would empower the Department of Transportation to establish tolls, which eventually would become the chief source of revenue for the Special Transportation Fund. The fund’s chief sources of revenue now are fuel taxes.

Proponents of tolls say the investment is necessary to bail out the fund that supports transportation construction projects, and dismissed criticism that the money would just be raided to help cover the state’s operating budget, as has been done in the past.

“I promise you if we do this, this state will thrive,” said state Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, the longtime House chair of the legislature’s Transportation Committee.

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said the key is having voters this November approve locking in the revenue generated by tolls so it cannot be raided going forward.

“That is a win for Connecticut taxpayers. It’s a win for transportation advocates and it’s a win for businesses, because now you don’t have to leave three hours early to leave for Stamford,” he said.

Ritter and Guerrera’s support for tolls is not new, though they said they believe the growing recognition that necessary transportation projects don’t have a funding source could help the measure pass this year.

That’s still a tall order given that Democrats hold an extremely narrow majority of votes in the General Assembly, Republicans have not come out in support of tolls and Democrats are divided on the issue.

“Yes, this will be a tough vote, I get that,” said Guerrera, and for those against tolls, he asks, “What’s the alternative?”

Republicans have said in the past that transportation projects could be funded by prioritizing what the state borrows money for and limiting other non-transportation projects.

“This issue will certainly be debated in the coming legislative session, and public opinion will likely move around once the location and number of tolls are defined and we learn how much revenue they will generate,” said House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby.

Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano said tolls could have the unintended consequence of putting federal funding at risk.

“It’s reckless to rush to approve tolls before even understanding the economics of how they would work,” said Fasano. “Connecticut needs to consider ways to fund transportation without asking for more from state taxpayers who have already been drained enough.”

Ritter disagrees that the state could reprioritize its borrowing habits to save transportation projects.

“I just don’t see how it works,” he said, saying it would sideline other important projects and the state badly needs a new funding source for transportation. “We hope common sense prevails and this passes,” he said.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CtMirror.org

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, right, and House chair of the Transportation Committee Tony Guerrera announce their plans to once again back tolls.

Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has hinted strongly he will propose additional funding to meet the transportation programs’ needs, both in the short-term and the long-term, in his next budget plan. That plan must be submitted to the General Assembly on Feb. 7.

The Malloy administration warned Wall Street credit rating agencies in November that the new state budget short-changes the transportation program. Absent more funding, the program is headed for dramatic contraction over the next five years.

The Special Transportation Fund, which holds about $1.51 billion this fiscal year, represents about 7 percent of the overall budget. It chiefly is used to cover debt payments on transportation-related borrowing and Department of Transportation operations.

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 not slowing down as Connecticut tries to reverse decades of deferred maintenance and other infrastructure investment.

On Jan. 10, the governor and DOT Commissioner James Redeker outlined nearly 400 capital projects worth $4.3 billion that would be suspended over the next five years because of inadequate funding.

Administration officials also have warned that inadequate funding would mean:

  • Rail and bus fare hikes
  • Reductions in service on the Shoreline East rail line as well as the Danbury and Waterbury lines that feed into the MetroNorth rail commuter system;
  • And possible cuts in Town Aid Road grants to cities and towns.

Some of these reductions, they said, could begin as early as this year.

The House chairman of the General Assembly’s Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, said last week he would propose adding 4 cents to Connecticut’s 25-cents-per-gallon retail gasoline tax to avert a crisis in the transportation program.

The governor, who proposed a 30-year, $100 billion program to rebuild Connecticut’s transportation system in February 2015, has had limited success since then securing resources for the program.

Lawmakers agreed in the spring of 2015 to dedicate a portion of sales tax receipts to transportation. This was deemed the key to funding the first five years of the program, through 2020. Much of the new capital spending in the first five years is focused on planning major projects.

A gubernatorial study panel recommended several options in early 2016 to fund the final 25 years, including restoring tolls to highways, increasing gasoline taxes and boosting sales taxes. These options, which would raise an estimated $42 billion over 30 years, have not been adopted.

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