Modern tolls use overhead gantries like this one in Australia. Connecticut Department of Transportation
Gov. Ned Lamont

Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposal to toll all vehicles would dramatically infuse Connecticut’s aging, overcrowded transportation infrastructure with new cash  — three or four years from now.

But Lamont’s recently announced “debt diet” would immediately cancel hundreds of millions of dollars in potential borrowing for transportation — to help solve  larger problems in Connecticut’s finances.

So as he urges support for tolls on Connecticut’s highways, the governor also must convince people he will keep the state’s cash-starved transportation rebuilding program afloat.

“I think scaling back right now would be catastrophic,” said Donald Shubert, president of the Connecticut Construction Industry Association.

Shubert’s group praised Lamont for his decision Saturday to propose tolls on all vehicles, which could raise $800 million to $1 billion annually for transportation. It is anticipated about 40 percent of those proceeds would come from out-of-state motorists.

Don Shubert, president of the Connecticut Construction Industry Association Keith M.Phaneuf / CTMirror.org

The governor received similar accolades from construction unions.

But David Roche, president of the Connecticut State Building Trades Council, agreed with Shubert that the state can’t afford to backtrack — even for a few years — on maintaining an aging, overcrowded transportation network.

“I really don’t believe we can have less money going into transportation,” even for a few years, Roche said, adding that residents who are wary of tolls may not fully understand how worn down Connecticut’s infrastructure is. “They really don’t understand how bad the bridges are,” he said. “They are a mess. It’s a safety issue to me right now.”

A 2017 report by the American Road and Builders Association warned that 33.5 percent of Connecticut’s bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. It also said that 57 percent of roads eligible for federal aid are rated “not acceptable,” which is the second-highest percentage among all states.

Former state Transportation Commissioner Emil Frankel, who served under Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. from 1991 until 1995 — and who now works as a transportation consultant — also applauded Lamont’s position on tolls.

“I think scaling back right now would be catastrophic.”

— Donald Shubert

President, Connecticut Construction Industry Association

But in a joint statement with Shubert, Frankel wrote that “in the meantime, as Connecticut works toward developing long-term solutions, it is essential that adequate revenues continue to flow into the Special Transportation Fund to support the operating costs and bonding levels required to maintain the currently programmed projects, systems and services.”

Though he pledged on the campaign trail last fall only to recommend tolling on trucks, Lamont reversed himself Saturday, saying it would be highly unlikely Connecticut could do this and afford the transportation upgrades needed to support long-term economic growth.

“Beyond an inconvenience, the crushing congestion we experience on I-95, I-91, I-84 and the Merritt Parkway, in particular, is a real challenge we must address and overcome if we are to maximize our economic development potential,” the governor wrote in a weekend op-ed piece. “Our proximity in mileage to New York City means nothing if it takes 90 minutes to get there from Stamford on the road, and over an hour by train.”

The problem Lamont faces, though, is that the state budget’s General Fund — which covers about 90 percent of all operating costs — is arguably in worse shape than the transportation program.

Lamont, whose first budget is due Wednesday to legislators, must offer a plan to avert a potential $1.5 billion shortfall in the coming fiscal year, and a $2 billion potential deficit in 2020-21.

Further complicating matters, the new governor wants to close those gaps without raising the state income tax and while delivering property tax relief to poor and middle-class households.

Part of his budget fix involves reining in Connecticut’s credit card. Lamont proposed a “debt diet” for general obligation borrowing. G.O. bonds, which are repaid using receipts from the income tax and other proceeds of the General Fund, are the principal tool used to finance municipal school construction and capital projects at public universities.

But slamming the brakes on this borrowing also has big repercussions for transportation.

Lawmakers put a ‘patch’ on transportation system

Legislators couldn’t agree in 2017 or 2018 on tolls, despite repeated warnings from then-Gov. Dannel P. Malloy that the transportation program was running short of cash and could do little more than basic maintenance.

Former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

As a compromise, lawmakers put a financial ‘patch’ on transportation to buy a few more years until a long-term solution could be found.

One section of that patch involved dedicating a portion of the school construction credit card — up to $250 million per year in G.O. bonding — to support transportation projects.

That would supplement the regular transportation borrowing program — about $750 million to $800 million per year — repaid from the budget’s Special Transportation Fund, which largely is supported with fuel tax receipts.

State borrowing for transportation is absolutely crucial because it qualifies Connecticut for more than $700 million-plus per year in federal transportation grants.

As a second part of the 2017-18 compromise, legislators agreed to speed up a planned transfer of sales tax receipts from the General Fund into the Special Transportation Fund. 

The transportation program is expected to receive, on average, an extra $133 million annually over the next two fiscal years.

Lamont’s first budget, will have to decide whether to maintain those transfers.

By a nearly nine-to-one margin, voters last November ratified a new amendment to the state Constitution creating a legal “lockbox” to protect transportation funds for being used for other purposes.

But that provision applies only to resources credited to the transportation fund after the amendment’s ratification. And those resources aren’t earmarked to arrive in the transportation program until the next fiscal year begins on July 1.

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.

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6 Comments

  1. A few questions occur to me regarding this story.

    1. When Lamont talks about upgrading the transportation infrastructure, what specifically does he mean? Expanding the interstates? Asking for tolls to update the infrastructure would be more palatable if there was a plan and the op-ed didn’t sketch it out. Adding more lanes on the highways and more Bridgeport-to-Waterbury trains isn’t the answer.

    2. Why does this story only quote contractors and their consultants? While their objectives are appropriate, construction companies are not disinterested parties.

  2. Why do we not see any discussion on how to maximize the output of taxpayer funded transportation projects:

    Connecticut spends $99,417 per mile of road in administrative costs, according to the Reason Foundation’s annual study on state transportation spending and effectiveness. Connecticut had the highest administrative costs in the country,which were nine times the national average of $10,864. The administrative cost per mile increased by 19 percent since the Foundation’s previous study in 2016.

    In total, Connecticut spent $497,659 per mile of road, the 44th most expensive in the nation. The average cost per mile was $178,116

    Our prevailing wage law currently makes Connecticut to have the second-highest prevailing wage threshold in the country, and the highest by far in New England.

    Where are the proposals to reduce these administrative costs and prevailing wage thresholds, at least temporarily, until our aging, overcrowded transportation infrastructure is back on track.

    Our new business man Governor should should stand up for the taxpayer against the narrow selfish special interests and make sure for every hard earned tax dollar the Government spends maximum benefit is achieved.

      1. Thank you for your reply. Checking the source FHA data, which is reported to the FHA by each State and now includes 2016 data, I cannot see where the Reason numbers are incorrect. The 2016 figures are consistent with the 2015 numbers. Administrative costs in 2015 of 403,072 and in 2016 375,577 and total expenditures in 2015 – 2,017,682 and 2016 – 2,242,643. State controlled miles of 3720 and 3718.

        This data is from tables sf4 and hm-81.

        A simple comparison from the FHA data with a state, Colorado, with similar total expenditures shows Connecticut per mile cost is 2.57 times more expensive.

        Colorado – miles 9061

        2015 – 1,816,419
        2016 – 2,122,027

        Connecticut – miles 3720
        2015 – 2,017,682
        2016 – 2,242,643

        Note all numbers in thousands

        While one may quibble with the Reason report conclusions, the data, reported by Connecticut to the FHA, continues to show our per mile costs far exceed national averages.

        I stand by my assertion that our costs are excessive and the new Administration has to make every effort to identify and reduce our excessive per mile costs. If we could match Colorado’s efficiency we could do all of the desired transportation projects at a far lower cost, nearly 257% lower.

  3. Four months after the election the Governor still seems uncertain on how to proceed. If the Governor can’t get his hands around the well known decades long transporation problems what chance is there that the giant gorilla CT Budget and Economic problems will get addressed.
    We’re still hoping the Governor will assemble a well qualified expert staff of professionals to deal with the humongous problems that come with the office.

  4. While sitting in backed up traffic on I91 south bound while the 5 state trucks with two individuals in each truck, not moving, while a machine cut trees and dragged them to the side of the road. These trees have been there for about 40 years, based on there size. Thousands everyday spent to cut trees down that could never fall into the highway. Millions spent on the bus way that is losing 25 million per year as reported by this news outlet. Millions spent on a railroad upgrades that has decreasing ridership everyday between New Haven and Springfield. Now we are to believe that Lamont is going to change this bad investing? CT has a history of poor history of spending transportation funds wisely. Perfect example of misused funds is the walk walk on the bridge from Glastonbury to Wethersfield. There is nothing leading to it from either side but when you look at the released cost it was over 2 million dollars just for this walkway that can’t be used. Not one more penny spent until will get a solid plan on what is priority and how to best spend the taxpayers money.

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