Study of tolls remains CT’s political hot potato

Keith M. Phaneuf / CTMirror.org

Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s plan to commission a $10 million analysis on restoring tolls to Connecticut’s highways continues to provide fodder for this year’s state elections.

Sen. Joe Markley of Southington, one of three Republicans battling for the nomination for lieutenant governor, announced Tuesday he is seeking a court injunction to stop the study of an electronic tolling system.

But regardless of what happens with Markley’s filing in Hartford Superior Court, the study’s fate likely rests with Connecticut’s next governor and the 2019 General Assembly.

That’s because Malloy — who is not seeking re-election and whose term expires on Jan. 9 — has said most of the $10 million wouldn’t be spent until after he has left office. The governor said last month, when the State Bond Commission approved financing for the study, that it would take an estimated nine months to select a consultant to perform the work.

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)

Given that timetable, Malloy said only a small fraction of the funds would be spent before his term ends, specifically to advertise that the Department of Transportation is accepting bids on the analysis project.

Still, Markley said Tuesday that he believes the governor has overstepped his authority.

“It’s up to the General Assembly to authorize expenditures,” Markley said.  “Governor Malloy does not have legitimate authority to borrow $10 million to conduct a study the legislature did not approve.  It’s not just a reckless waste of money now — it sets a precedent for future executive overreach. Even by Dan Malloy’s standards, this is an arrogant abuse of power, coming at the expense of Connecticut’s citizens and laws.”

Attorney General George Jepsen, who like Malloy is a Democrat, said last month that the governor has authority to commission the study, using already granted legislative approval to finance transportation-related projects.

“As Attorney General Jepsen made clear during the bond commission meeting, Governor Malloy is well within his right to allow this study to proceed,” Malloy spokeswoman Kelly Donnelly said Tuesday. “Senator Markley is just plain wrong. And quite frankly, when it comes to modernizing an aging infrastructure and building the kind of transportation system Connecticut deserves, he has subscribed to the modern day “know-nothing” philosophy—proactively choosing to know less, rejecting options before even fully understanding them, and doing nothing.”

Malloy has insisted throughout his second term that Connecticut cannot finance a major rebuilding of its aging, overcrowded transportation infrastructure without a new, significant long-term revenue source.

Keith M. Phaneuf / CTMirror.org

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy

Key highway projects tentatively scheduled to begin or expand with the next five years — including replacement of the elevated section of Interstate 84, renovations to the “mixmaster’ junction of I-84 and Route 8 in Waterbury and widening of portions of Interstate 95 — would fall into fiscal limbo, according to the Malloy administration.

Republican legislators have been unanimous in their opposition to tolls. The GOP has countered that Connecticut must better prioritize its transportation program and borrowing in general to free up more dollars for infrastructure improvements. The governor and some of his fellow Democrats in the legislature counter this would barely provide enough resources for basic maintenance and would leave nothing to enhance and modernize highways, bridges and railways.

The House Republican Caucus tried in late July to petition the legislature into special session to enact a measure prohibiting the Department of Transportation from commissioning the study.

That petition drive failed when Democrats in both chambers, as well as Senate Republicans, declined to sign the petitions.

“I worry that some in modern-day Connecticut are subscribing to their own know-nothing philosophy,” the governor said after the bond commission approved the $10 million in financing on July 25, adding that his successor and the 2019 legislature will need all available data about tolls to avert a looming transportation crisis. “They’re choosing to reject new information, to decide proactively to know less, to limit the scope of their options before even fully understanding what those options truly are.”

Connecticut has not collected tolls on its highways since April 1989, when the last toll was removed from the Charter Oak Bridge. Between 1985 and 1988 Connecticut also had removed eight toll plazas spread across I-95 and I-395 as well as tolls on the Merritt and Wilbur Cross parkways.

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