Gov. Ned Lamont defending his tolls proposal. mark Pazniokas / ctmirror.org
Members of No Tolls CT listen to Gov. Ned Lamont’s press conference Keith M. Phaneuf / CTMIRROR.ORG
Members of No Tolls CT listen to Gov. Ned Lamont’s press conference Keith M. Phaneuf / CTMIRROR.ORG

The administration of Gov. Ned Lamont started Wednesday to fill in significant gaps in the Democratic governor’s expansive highway tolls proposal, a measure that instantly divided the legislature along partisan lines three weeks ago and became an early wedge issue in the 2020 elections.

At a press conference packed with invited supporters from the worlds of politics, labor and business, and then in a nearly three-hour presentation to the legislature’s Transportation Committee, the administration tried to regain the initiative in a debate dominated by opponents, a coalition of Republicans, trucking interests and a grass-roots group, No Tolls CT.

“I think they helped frame the issue from an economic development standpoint, from a commuting standpoint and an infrastructure standpoint, and helped outline the serious deficiencies in our current system,” said Rep. Roland J. Lemar, D-New Haven, the committee’s co chair.

But Republicans on the committee were unpersuaded, as was Patrick Sasser, the Stamford firefighter who founded the grass roots group, No Tolls CT. One in a long list of witnesses who lined up to object to  tolling in a hearing that stretched well into the evening, Sasser made no effort to hide his anger in sharp exchanges with committee members.

“The public was lied to. The voters were lied to. The trust was broken,” Sasser said, referring to Lamont’s campaign position of favoring trucks-only tolls, a promise he abandoned on Feb. 16 by proposing tolls for all motor vehicles. “That’s why we’re so passionate about this.”

Rep. Laura Devlin of Fairfield, the ranking House Republican on the committee, said Republicans “violently agree” with the need for increased transportation infrastructure investments, but they heard nothing Wednesday that would convince them tolls are the right way to provide them.

“I don’t know that there was whole lot of new light that was shed,” Devlin said. “The encouraging thing I heard today was an ongoing willingness to continue to have conversations.”

A troika of administration agency heads, backed by planning and engineering staff from the Department of Transportation, made their case for why tolls are needed, what they generally would cost and what the system would look like to motorists. Leading the presentation were Mellissa McCaw, the budget chief; Joseph Giulietti, the transportation commissioner; and David Lehman, the commissioner-designate of economic and community development.

The administration’s bill does not entertain legislative oversight over pricing, once the tolls are authorized, but McCaw told lawmakers that point is negotiable.

“The bill is a starting point for discussions,” McCaw said.

Tolls on the Merritt Parkway and Interstates 84, 91 and 95 generally would cost about four cents a mile, with 53 overhead electronic gantries silently noting drivers’ progress every six miles, Giulietti said. The tolls are projected by the administration to produced net annual revenues of $800 million.

State residents could get discounts of as much as 50 percent, the officials said, and prices would vary by time of day to address congestion. An earlier study estimated that about 30 percent of the tolls would be paid by out-of-state drivers, but the DOT now says their share would be 40 percent — a number some administration officials wore on their lapels.

“The public was lied to. The voters were lied to. The trust was broken.”

Patrick Sasser
Founder, No Tolls CT

Specifics would have to be vetted by the Federal Highway Administration, but officials have assured the state that tolls added to interstate highways would not cost Connecticut any federal highway funds.

“I have it in writing,” said Thomas J. Maziarz, the chief of policy and planning for the state DOT.

The governor did not address the committee, but he was one of eight speakers at a press conference aimed at framing the day’s news coverage around the theme of transportation investment as a much-needed vehicle to economic growth.

“What we’re doing is so important,” Lamont said. “We’ve got to bring our infrastructure, we’ve got to bring our transportation into the 21st century, and we have to do it now.”

H. Darrell Harvey, the co-leader of The Ashworth Company, a commercial real-estate company based in Stamford, said the tolls were vital to the state’s economic future. Traffic congestion is stifling economic growth in lower Fairfield County.

“It will help decongest our roads. The use of congestion pricing has been proven to work,” he said.

The DOT’s recommended rate of 4.4 cents per mile would be the same as what is charged to travel the Mass Pike and lower than what is charged in New York and New Jersey.

GOP lawmakers argue Connecticut can rebuild its transportation network without tolls. 

But to do that, a major portion of borrowing currently reserved for other functions — about $700 million per year — must be redirected to complement the existing transportation bonding program.

And because toll revenues wouldn’t arrive until 2023, the Republican plan would invest far more in infrastructure than Lamont’s approach would over the next four years.

For example, the governor recommended about $1.6 billion in state borrowing for transportation over the next two-year budget. The GOP is recommending more than $2.9 billion — about 80 percent more than Lamont.

“Our plan brings certainty,” Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said before the hearing.

But the Republican plan also would keep Connecticut on an overall borrowing program that Lamont says is unaffordable.

The governor has proposed a “debt diet” that would trim borrowing for municipal school construction and capital projects at state universities — the same pot the GOP’s “Prioritize Progress” program would dip into the enhance transportation work.

Fasano testified before the Transportation Committee, joined by Peter Malone, the chief executive officer of Thurston Foods, a Wallingford-based supplier of lunch foods to schools systems across the state and in Massachusetts.

The family-owned business has 215 employees, 60 trucks and 15 other vehicles that deliver food to 3,000 customers. Malone estimated that the tolls would cost his company at least $250,000 a year.

“The costs are going to get passed along. This is a tax,” Malone said.

Sasser, the founder of No Tolls CT who has aggressively criticized legislative supporters of tolls, was challenged by lawmakers.

Lemar first complimented him, praising his skills as an organizer.

“You’ve done a wonderful job,” Lemar said.

“On a shoestring,” Sasser replied.

Lemar asked Sasser to look at the legislative supporters of tolls as elected officials acting in good faith to preserve the state’s transportation system. Lemar ticked off a list of the needs.

“We have a disagreement on how to get there,” Lemar said.

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, who is not a member of the committee, used his prerogatives as speaker to question Sasser, asking how he would respond to municipalities that want the state to continue funding school construction and other projects. The GOP plan would greatly limit the state’s abilities to fund those projects.

“Sir, I am not an elected official. I don’t know that answer. I can speak to you as a taxpayer. We pay our fair share. We pay and pay and pay,” Sasser said. “When does it stop?”

Editor’s note: An original version of this story incorrectly identified the founder of No Tolls CT. His name is Patrick Sasser, not Peter. 

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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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15 Comments

  1. I guess we are going to need another Mianus River bridge collapse to drive home (pun intended) the point that our infrastructure needs dedicated revenues for maintenance, repairs, updating, and upgrading. We can no longer afford to be complacent about our aging infrastructure… What if this was the Baldwin or Gold Star today? This is what Mianus looked like in 1983 and the impact on the local community:

    https://connecticuthistory.org/mianus-river-bridge-collapses-today-in-history/

    Here is a list of structurally deficient bridges:

    https://patch.com/connecticut/across-ct/300-structurally-deficient-bridges-ct-here-s-where-they-are

    Would any of you like to see your family or friends or anyone in the Connecticut, Thames or any river because you don’t want tolls for an ideological reason? Clinging to ideological agendas is willful stupidity.

    Choices have implications. Lack of action has consequences.

    1. Sweeping monies out of the account they were intended for is also willful stupidity.

      As you state: Choices have implications. Lack of action has consequences.
      It many cases the choice of action now has consequences.

      Lotto was originally intended as a means to provide funds for education – less than half now goes towards education. When a tax or fee is instituted for a specific purpose it should remain so.

    2. You’re correct. Choices DO have implications.

      The problem is that anyone who has lived in CT for any length of time knows full well that ‘revenues’ touted as dedicated for specific purposes rarely end up being used as billed. Rules set by the legislature FOR the legislature’s saving/spending are routinely completely ignored. These choices have the real effect of creating opposition to any and all of their grand plans. I’m sure you’re familiar with the old adage “Fool me once…….”

      What I haven’t seen addressed is the question of how the data collected by these gantries will be used. For instance, if you go through one gantry at 0900 and the next gantry sooner than the speed limit would indicate you should arrive at that point, will this data eventually trigger a speeding ticket?

      Further, what will be the cost of the massive bureaucracy required, including the acquisition and support of yet another transponder system.

      Finally, what CT resident doesn’t know that once a taxing program is in place, it not only never goes away but also always gets more expensive. We also know that the spending of these revenues always seems to benefit politicians’ favored groups, both by group chosen as well as amount spent. That’s one way they manage to stay in power over us.

      Nobody wants another Mianus Bridge event. We also don’t want more boondoggles like the I-84, endless I-95 (West Haven) and other scams regarding infrastructure paid for by us taxpayers. We DO want our politicians to be accountable. I’ve seen very little of that in my several decades of being a legal CT resident.

    3. Tax and spend. Tax and spend. Rinse and repeat. Each year, there are fresh assertions that we need to dig deeper for “shared sacrifice.” We are now on our third tax and spend iteration to balance the budget, with many more on the way over the next 10-20 years. There’s a limit to what taxpayers can and will pay to fund decades of fiscal mismanagement and bloated state worker benefits. We are reaching our breaking point and it won’t end well for Connecticut.

      1. A highway toll is a reasonable user fee that needs to be implemented to invest in our state’s future.

    4. Lucira Jane:

      Where have the billions been spent for the last 40 years since the Mianus River Bridge collapse and before that. The people have paid plenty. It’s the politicians AND the ideology that YOU support that has failed the people of this state.

    5. No one is arguing that Connecticut does not need to improve infrastructure but tolls ARE NOT the only option. There are many ways to get this job done but Democrat leaders seem unwilling to listen to those other ideas seriously. The easier thing to do is new revenue via tolling but remember what that really means. It is creating a direct connection to taxpayers wallets because there is no other option to get to work – almost all of us need to use the roads. The fee to use roads can be increased at any time, and the lockbox is nonsense because the legislature can get around it easily (if they need to) – the language makes sure of that and Senior Democrats know that.

      The other issue is the same Senior Democrats (we all know who they are) are pushing hard for a new revenue solution to a problem that should NOT EXIST if they had been investing properly in our infrastructure. The special transportation fund was routinely robbed to fill holes in the general fund instead of cutting spending – thats the bottomline.

  2. If you are wondering why you aren’t getting any comments on articles, it is because every comment has to be approved. That cuts down discussion and I never see my comments or anyone elses later. If you don’t want them, don’t allow them.

  3. Sasser’s response hits the nail on the head: “We pay our fair share. We pay and pay and pay,” Sasser said. “When does it stop?”

    Our roads and bridges are in terrible shape. I can attest to this after a 1,800+ mile trip to Ohio last week. The need for repair to the CT infrastructure is epic.

    But there is never a mention running the state in a more efficient manner. Of a reduction in head count, increased co-pays on insurance etc. Just more taxes. More and more and more taxes.

  4. Well, it’s only fair that users of roads should help pay for their upkeep. It’s either tolls or a higher gas tax . . .

  5. Let’s all be honest here. The Priority of the Lamont Administration is “railways”, not “roadways”. You can be guaranteed, taxpayer toll monies will be directed towards improving rail service, not road services. Is that really right or necessary? No! Why? Well, based on the “Average Cost per Mile ” for a $500.00 per Month “New Haven to Grand Central Station Rail Pass” cost equates to a about $00.16 per Mile. Additionally, many professionals living in the Southern End of the State usng this route, can expense or deduct their transportation costs, or can well afford to pay increased fares. So, if you want better rail service, charge those who use it, through increased fares. Please, don’t use expensive and unfair tolling to punish the average worker to fund better rail service for a small segment of affuent commuters. It is just not fair, or right!

  6. Given current economic conditions, I continue to be amazed by CT voters who believe politicians that promise to hold the line on any form of revenue generation.

  7. Lucira. The 2 problems with the tolls are this. 1. You know somehow they will mot put all the toll money into our approved lockbox and will take it and move some of those funds to the general fund .2. If we saw some effort to make some cuts in our bloated budget, then I don’t think people would be up in arms over it as much .Im actually ok with tolls. I drive the entire northeast from philly to maine so i know i pay in the other states. We should do .It more of what the gov’t will do with it .We just had the new gov state trucks only and within 1 month reniged on that promise .I believe this is what is causing more of the uproar.

  8. #YesTolls because highway tolls are a reasonable user fee that needs to be implemented to invest in our state’s future.

    Connecticut has four cities, Hartford, New Haven, Waterbury, and Bridgeport, in the top 30 in the nation for zero-car households. In seven neighborhoods in Hartford, more than 40 percent of the households have no cars. Almost two-thirds of Hartford’s workforce, many of them using bus transit, work outside of Hartford.

    During the 2018 transportation budget crisis, the state Department of Transportation threatened to cut funds from the regional transit districts while raising bus and rail fares across the state. Raising transit and rail costs while cutting service is a terrible strategy for getting Connecticut residents to work.

    Cars are not an option for many of our state’s low-income residents, and cutting their connection to jobs is not fiscally sound. Employers need workers, and transit gets them where they need to go. A robust multi-modal transportation system is egalitarian and provides key jobs access for both our urban professionals and the rest of the state’s workers.
    A transportation system that requires car ownership prevents many workers and families from building family savings and following the American dream.
    The Center for Latino Progress, as a grassroots organization, is in support of investment in our transportation system generated by tolls. Toll revenue must be dedicated to building the sustainable transportation infrastructure of Connecticut’s future. Tolls, as fees for highway use, are sorely needed for maintenance, bridge replacements and continued investment in our transit and rail systems. A modern, multi-modal transportation system will allow businesses and communities to thrive while supporting the workers that power the economy.
    The state’s commerce and community health should be driving the decision making. Connecticut has the eighth-oldest population in the nation and needs transportation options that support our aging seniors while simultaneously attracting a generation of young adults and professionals that are moving back into cities and town centers. Both of those groups are looking to drive less and have an appetite for environmentally sustainable transportation that improves health, supports their neighborhoods and connects them to opportunities.

    A state that values all workers invests in accessible and high-quality transit systems and focuses on new development around transit corridors and stations. Not everyone is going to take CTtransit, CTfastrak, or the Hartford Line commuter rail to work, but as more do, it will lift our local economies, reduce highway congestion, and improve our environment. Considering the equity impact of tolls, we must provide a reduced fare structure for the working poor that are driving to work.
    While federal and state gas tax rates have been flat for decades, transit fares have continued to rise. We need to consider how the transportation system of the future will serve our children and grandchildren with a livable world and green jobs. Forty percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions are from the transportation sector, the largest contributing sector by far. Without a shift to a higher percentage of transit, rail, walking, and biking for commutes, we will be contributing to the global climate catastrophe. As a coastal state, Connecticut cannot pretend to ignore the ravages we will face from rising waters and extreme weather events.

    The state legislature and the governor are currently considering the structure and funding for Connecticut’s infrastructure investments and transportation system that will serve future generations. We are one of a few Northeast states that have yet to re-implement highway tolls, and that hinders our ability to invest in a transportation system that builds a vibrant and sustainable state. Gas tax revenues are flat and will be falling as cars become more efficient and the percentage of the electric vehicles climb.

    We are not reducing the number of highways, while the costs for maintenance and replacement of those aging interstate structures are climbing rapidly as they reach the end of their useful lives.
    A highway toll is a reasonable user fee that needs to be implemented to invest in our state’s future.

  9. What’s upsetting here is that tolls is a fairly modest issue in the much more important concern of reversing CT’s decade long stagnant economy/employment levels and huge unfunded pensions. Since neither candidate detailed their ‘plans” during the election the lack of post-election plans is not surprising. But all the more regrettable. Increasingly it looks like we’re seeing an extension of Gov. Malloy’s efforts. Or lack of same. And that’s not positive.

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