Gov. Ned Lamont and Sen. Carlo Leone. Mark Pazniokas /
Gov. Ned Lamont and Sen. Carlo Leone. Mark Pazniokas /

Gov. Ned Lamont and Republicans crystallized two things Wednesday about the contentious issue of returning highway tolls to Connecticut after an absence of 35 years: Lamont cannot yet definitively answer important questions about the pricing, location and frequency of tolls — and it wouldn’t matter to the GOP, even if he could.

In back-to-back press conferences, the gulf between the governor and Republican minority could not have been greater, reinforcing that if Lamont succeeds in winning authorization to establish tolls on Route 15 and Interstates 84, 91 and 95, Republicans are resolved to brand them as the product of a Democratic governor and Democratic majorities in the General Assembly.

Lamont and the Democratic co-chairs of the legislature’s Transportation Committee tried to reframe the issue Wednesday in terms of specific rush-hour commutes, assuming 4.4 cents a mile with discounts for state drivers: from New Haven to Hartford on 91, $1.72; from Stamford to New Haven on 95, $1.80; from Danbury to Waterbury on 84, $1.28.

The governor complained that Republicans, who have been assisted by a grass-roots campaign and conservative talk radio hosts in mobilizing public opinion against a proposal he rolled out in February, have created the impression he wants a tolling gantry at the end of every street.

“That’s false,” Lamont said. “That’s false advertising.”

Lamont seemed wistful about how his administration is faring in the public debate, at least for the moment. 

“We have a middle class that has gotten slammed over a generation now. And they are paying a lot of money. And they feel like folks are falling behind. And that is the one thing that rings with me. I have to sit down with folks, find a fair way to do this.”

Gov. Ned Lamont

He said he understands that the public is skeptical about government’s ability to responsibly managed tolling revenue, even the money would have to be used for highway infrastructure under federal law. But he said he is most concerned about the imposition of added costs on taxpayers, imagining a conversation with one.

“We have a middle class that has gotten slammed over a generation now. And they are paying a lot of money. And they feel like folks are falling behind. ‘C’mon, guv,  you know I know we have to fix the transportation. I know borrowing is not the way to do it. But I don’t know how I can afford to do that.’ And that is the one thing that rings with me. I have to sit down with folks, find a fair way to do this.”

Republicans countered that Lamont has only a broad outline for tolling, not a detailed plan to raise the $800 million that administration officials estimate could be raised annually through tolls.  They complained that he reflexively rejected their alternative  — increasing borrowing for transportation by $700 million a year by prioritizing transportation over many other areas.

“The Republicans in the legislature are not fooled by this proposal, and the problem now is neither is the public,” said Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford. “When you go out, the public is scared, they are concerned. They don’t know what level of taxation is going to occur now.”

Republicans excoriated Lamont and his legislative allies for pushing legislation that would cede authority to the state Department of Transportation to negotiate with the Federal Highway Administration the terms of establishing tolls on Route 15 and Interstates 84, 91 and 95.

Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven.

“They are going to determine how much they are going to charge without one legislator weighing in,” said Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven.

“How disrespectful could you be to the people of the state of Connecticut by saying, ‘Give us the authority and then we’ll tell you how much, and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it,’” Fasano continued, his voice raised in anger. “That is simply outrageous.”

But Fasano and other Republicans conceded that even if the General Assembly had final say over a detailed tolling plan, the GOP was unlikely to engaged in a policy discussion about what is setting up as a major wedge issue in the 2020 elections for legislative seats.

“For us to retreat and even consider tolls, there really hasn’t been put anything on the table that makes that a viable option,” said Candelora, the deputy House minority leader.

“How disrespectful could you be to the people of the state of Connecticut by saying, ‘Give us the authority and then we’ll tell you how much, and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it.’”

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano

Donald J. Shubert, the president of the Connecticut Construction Industries Association, a trade group that promotes tolls as a means to stabilize financing for highway maintenance and modernization, said he is resigned to seeing tolls as an issue that will rise or fall strictly on Democratic votes.

“You have to work with the people you can work with until we get an indication they are willing to have a serious discussion,” Shubert said. “It’s a wedge issue.”

One of Lamont’s challenges is the chicken-and-egg nature of developing and winning approval for placing tolls on interstate highways constructed or maintained with federal highway dollars. Connecticut is one of the states permitted to experiment with tolls aimed at reducing congestion with variable pricing,  based on peak and an off-peak travel. The Federal Highway Administration, however, will not sign off on a detailed blueprint until the legislature approved enabling legislation.

Lamont also faces opposition from Democrats over his “debt diet,” a plan to sharply curtail borrowing.

Borrowing for transportation projects is repaid from the Special Transportation Fund, which is supported with fuel tax receipts that are stagnant. The fund is projected to be insolvent within the next decade.

The GOP solution is to increase borrowing for transportation projects by about $700 million per year. But to avoid overtaxing the STF, Republicans would pay off that extra debt from the state’s General Fund.

The problem with that, said Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, a Transportation Committee co-chair, is the General Fund can’t spare the room on its own credit card. Its borrowing is used to build schools, upgrade universities and wastewater treatment plants, preserve open space and farmland, and support economic development.

The Republican plan “shortchanges literally every aspect of state government,” he said. “It will crowd out every other bonding aspect.”

Lamont also doesn’t want to use the General Fund to pay for transportation work as unaffordable under the terms of his debt diet, creating a short-term gap in transportation funding until tolls are approved. He paused when asked Wednesday if he felt Democrats would support his debt diet.

“They all applauded when I mentioned the ‘debt diet’ in my speech,” he said, referring to his budget address on Feb. 20.

Rep. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, the other transportation co-chair, was noncommittal after the press conference when it came to Lamont’s debt proposal: “I think the ‘debt diet’ is separate from the tolls issue.”

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Mark PazniokasCapitol Bureau Chief

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.

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Keith M. PhaneufState Budget Reporter

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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  1. The Republicans are correct on this issue. We must know the ADDITIONAL overall cost for the average family each year because we all need to use the roads to get to work especially those of us with children who do school and community related activities etc. Also where is the discussion on a tax credit for work commuting?.

    It is really concerning because this is the same issue with almost every major Democrat proposal this cycle. Democrats seem intent to pass bills without any serious debate on the financial ramifications (regardless if they are good or bad ideas) if no one knows the total cost then it should not be seriously considered by either parties representatives. This lack of discipline is also sending a terrible message to the business community. The private sector ALWAYS understands the costs before they do something major, I am a little surprised at Gov. Lamont on this, he seemed to be very reasonable (unlike his predecessor) but this is a Malloy bully move – why are we not debating all options seriously?

    1. The ironic thing is that all of this misguided legislation – Tolls, Minimum Wage Increase, and PFML is going to hurt the ones that the liberals claim that they are fighting for. Tolls aren’t going to hurt the wealthy, but the poor schlub who drives everyday to work that extra $80 may be the difference between being able to afford home heating oil.
      The poor kid who is struggling to get a some OJT is going to be unemployed because although he is willing to work for 10.50 and hour and although there are employers willing to pay 10.50 an hour the liberals will not allow him to work, so for every three people whose salaries go up 40% there will be two whose salaries go down 100%. Look at Seattle. And the PFML act will not only make sure that a few moms and dads are going to be able to have a nice several month with their new baby there will be some who will not be able to afford that child or will have unlimited time to spend because they are unemployed.

    2. This small business owner just returned from South Carolina looking for a state appreciative of businesses. It’s time to leave this state of never ending negative business climate. 65 years of supporting liberals who want me to pull a heavier cart is enough. The tipping point has past and there is no turning back. Not a single solitary word of appreciation has been uttered. Lamont? He is the next disaster in the making.

      1. The “tipping point” is different for all of us in the business community but I do hear your sentiment from others. I think Gov. Lamont’s “grace period” is ending soon so and then business leaders have tough decisions to make – but that’s what they do. Almost every business I know is discussing what “plan b” is if Connecticut looks like it will become insolvent and how that will impact both their business strategy but also personal wealth.

  2. Lamont “wants” tolls but doesn’t have a plan. It is correctly being viewed by an overtaxed population as nothing more than a money grab.

  3. “That’s false,” Lamont said. “That’s false advertising.”
    Almost like saying you are only going to toll out of state trucks.

  4. One detail to keep in mind is that different toll rates cannot be charged based on state residency. So, when they talk about “in state” drivers, what they mean is those owning a CT-issued EZ Pass, which anyone could acquire. I have a MA-issued EZ Pass to take advantage of the lower tolls from it.

    And, I have just spent the last week driving around in the poorest states in the country (AL, LA, MS) which have no tolls and great highways. Wonder how they do that?

  5. This very much reminds me of Nancy Pelosi’s infamous ‘we have to pass it to find out what’s in it.’

    There is so much that hasn’t been determined, or at least disclosed, while demanding it be passed. We already know that the Governor, and the Gov before him, have stated various plans since this began. As many stated when the ‘lockbox’ was proposed, there were way too many holes in that lockbox. Gov. Lamont has already used one of them when he created an artificial crisis through eliminating car sales taxes from being placed in the ‘box.’

    We constantly hear about our crumbling infrastructure needing to be addressed. How much of the lockbox will go to subsidizing the money pit busline? How much to subsidize the trains? How much will be directed to an even larger State bureaucracy? What portion, if any, of toll revenues aren’t allowed to go to some of the Governor’s/CGA’s wish lists?

    So much needs to be disclosed before any informed, logical decision can or should be made. We don’t want–or need–another pay for it before we know what we’ve bought. Even if you support the idea of tolls, demand answers from your State Senators, Representatives and Governor prior to a vote.

  6. Why are tolls a major issue now? The money wouldn’t appear until after this budget (and the next) have ended.
    The bonding debate seems more immediately consequential. The debt diet is likely to be compromised to obtain votes from Democrats for tolls. But until then, the Governor seems to be advocating ignoring transportation needs until tolls appear.
    Republicans and reporters might pay more attention to that part of the issue.

  7. We already have the system in place for gasoline tax so the Democrats should just get their money there instead of adding yet another tax and monster.

  8. … Lamont and his legislative allies for pushing legislation that would cede authority to the state Department of Transportation to negotiate with the Federal Highway Administration the terms of establishing tolls on Route 15 and Interstates 84, 91 and 95.

    What does the FHA have to say about Route 15 – it is NOT an interstate highway? Also, since it is not, what’s to prevent the toll revenue from Route 15 to be diverted to the General Fund?

    From my perspective:
    – No bill should be brought to the floor that will go into effect 15 days later WITHOUT a vote by our politicians. That is the coward’s way out and allows every politician the ability to say “I didn’t vote for tolls.”
    – No delegating the authority to the DOT or a special Transportation Authority to determine where to toll and how much it is. Where and how much MUST be brought to a vote on the floor and require a 2/3 majority to pass.
    – I am so disappointed with this legislative session and the governor because not one word has been spoken about where the cost of CT government can be reduced. None. Nadda. First word from all of our leaders has had to be “Where and how can we get more revenue?”

    To my state rep & senator: If you vote to pass ANY bill increasing my tax burden you can count on my support to see that you are NOT reelected.

  9. Just before the election I predicted that if Lamont was victorious that contrary to what candidate Lamont promised:
    1. we would have tolls and CT citizens would not be exempted as promised
    2. The tolls will land disproportionately in Fairfield County, and;
    3. Taxes would increase.

    the only surprising thing is that the new gov has not even gone through the acting of making believe that he was going to cut spending, instead he is going to add tolls, taxes and two extraordinary new “taxes” called PFML and a $15 minimum wages which will drive the final nail in the coffin of small biz in CT. Don’t these people learn anything, more importantly, don’t WE ever learn anything?

  10. I hope when they figure out the tolls, they’ll publish how much of a raise I’ll have to ask for at work. Then when everyone at work asks for similar raises, and the freight carriers figure out the increased charges for deliveries, these costs charged will be passed along to the consumer, a double whammy to the average state resident.

    State Employees will also be subject to these tolls. Now since the State is the State’s largest employer, they too will ask for an increase in pay to pay these tolls. Only here, guess where that increase in salary will come from since the state does not produce a product or provide a service? Oh, also consider that bump in pay also raises the pension liability we already can’t afford.

    So tolls (taxes) to use the highway seem like a great idea. To whom? Do our elected officials see how this works?

  11. Connecticut is ranked as the sixth most expensive state to live in. It already has the fourth highest tax burden in the nation, just behind New York, California and New Jersey. Connecticut leads the country in income tax collection at $2,279 per person. A just released Tax Foundation study found Connecticut’s property tax collections were the overall highest in the nation. As of January 2019 our tax on gasoline is the 7th highest in the nation. As a bonus – our state pensions are one of the worst funded in the nation, at an average of $10,300 owed per citizen.

    There is no excuse for tolling/taxing us further. We ALREADY contribute far more than citizens of nearly every other state.

  12. If you read Lamont’s words, he has said that this will go to a full vote. I am getting tired of GOP spinning this discussion. We have to pay for our roads and bridges. We don’t want to use bonding, the equivalent of a credit card to pay for this. GOP is so quick to bash this plan..and yet, their only answer is to borrow more and pay later. Sounds like Wimpy from Popeye…

    1. GES has a nice idea, BUT it’s not really thought out fully.
      – Collect the tolls. Got that. Remember though the funds MUST go to maintaining the road they’re collected from.
      – Offer a tax rebate equivalent to the tolls paid. Got that too.
      – But since the money collected must go towards the road, the rebate must come from elsewhere.
      – Add a NEW tax to cover the cost of the rebates.

      So in the end we pay the state more to cover the rebate we get for the tolls paid.
      Seems like there’s nothing to be gained here.
      Better that there be NO tolls.

  13. Another tax? Just do like California and raise the gas tax. That will spread the pain more fairly to all residents. The goal of trying to make out-of-staters pay by adding tolls causes too much unfairness to a limited group of commuters.

  14. I do understand the concern about burdensome impact of tolls on our state residents, but what I rarely see discussed is the missed revenue capture from out of state motorists.

    If you drive on I95 with any regularity, particularly around weekend and holidays, if you don’t notice the incredible high volume of license plates from NY and NJ, then you’re not looking very hard. Heaven forbid there is a lane closure on 95 and you live in a community near the highway. Nothing like trying to run out for food or gas to the local store and waiting at back street stop signs clogged with interstate drivers.

    These folks are traveling roadways our state tax dollars are charged with plowing, policing, and repairing. Both NY and NJ assess tolls on their roadways. These people’s use of roads we are responsible for has a tangible cost, in terms of wear/tear on the actual asphalt, and consumption of emergency services. Would be very interesting if studies were conducted about composition of traffic incidents on 95, accounting for % of instate vs out of state motorists, and I’m talking just regular cars, not even trailers. We live next to 4th largest state by population, and one of largest urban centers in the country . The spill over on to CT highways is very obvious, and lest we not forget a large number of these drivers come from one of the most notoriously bad locations in the world for safe driving practices.

    We really need to agree on a fair way to not miss out on compensation from NY/NJ drivers, without creating onerous experience for CT drivers.

    1. We get it from the feds because we have no tolls. Research the issue. It’s not about transportation infrastructre. It’s to pay pensions. Period. This toll money will NOT go into transportation fund.

  15. Come on, people. It’s only fair that the people who use our roads should contribute to their upkeep. Gas tax should be higher! We need tolls of some kind! And the money thus collected needs to be clearly reserved for highway maintenance.

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