Hartford — The clanging bells and rumbling diesel of an arriving southbound train on the way to New Haven briefly interrupted Gov. Ned Lamont’s news conference Monday on the platform at Union Station. Rather than compete, the amused governor surprised an Amtrak conductor by shouting, “Last call for the 473! All aboard!”
The passengers readily complied.
But getting legislators on board for his plan to use highway tolls as a major new source of transportation funding will be far more complicated, as Lamont learned during the annual legislative session that ended June without a vote on tolls in either chamber of the General Assembly.
Lamont rode the Hartford Line on Monday to celebrate the successful first year of commuter rail service from New Haven through Hartford to Springfield, stepping off the train to address reporters about commuter rail. Eventually, he turned to the coming effort to convince lawmakers to risk a vote for a comprehensive system of highway tolls.
The Democratic governor and legislative leaders of both parties are meeting Wednesday to talk about a special session on transportation infrastructure, giving his administration a second chance to convince the public and legislators that Connecticut needs at least another $700 million a year in revenue to maintain and modernize transportation — and that tolls need to be in the mix.
“I’ve got to make a case how vital it is that we fix up our transportation system,” Lamont said. “How every single business leader I talk to says it is a key determinant in terms of ‘where I grow and expand my business.’ You can bond for it more, put more debt on the back of taxpayers. You can have a user fee. That’s what we’ve got to discuss. Or is there something in between?”
The administration has been working since the annual session ended June 5 on marshaling data about the inadequacy of the revenue sources supporting transportation, primarily taxes on fuel purchased at the pump by motorists and in bulk by distributors. They also want to vividly show what tolls could buy.
Lamont did neither in February, when he reversed his campaign position of trucks-only tolls and proposed tolls for all motorists. His proposal was made in an op-ed article emailed to reporters on the first day of the long Presidents Day weekend, and he could not coax a vote in either the House or Senate.
One of Lamont’s challenges is that his tolls proposal most likely would not produce new revenue until 2023 and that most transportation projects by their nature can take years, if not decades, to design and bring to fruition. In other words, a newly elected governor who many suspect is focused on a single four-year term must convince lawmakers to take a long view.
“I would say I’m asking somebody to do something pretty tough, and that’s not what they like doing in the LOB,” Lamont said, referring to the Legislative Office Building. “I’m asking them to make a tough vote that’s going to really be for the long-term future of the state, not immediate gratification. And I’ve got make that case every day.”
After picking up legislative seats last year for the first time in a decade, Democrats now hold majorities of 22-14 in the Senate and 91-60 in the House of Representatives. At a contentious private meeting weeks ago, Senate Democrats told Lamont that the passage of a tolls bill could jeopardize the Democratic majority.
Republicans say they are adamantly opposed to tolls, countering with a plan that would set transportation as a priority for state borrowing, and increasing annual spending for transportation by about $700 million by limiting borrowing for other needs.
Lamont said he is gratified that he and Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, at least agree on the scope of the problem.
“Len Fasano and I both agree — we need about $700 million a year more. He wants to bond it on the backs of taxpayers. I’d like a user fee via tolls,” Lamont said. “If you want some sort of a compromise there, let’s talk about it. I’m not interested really in loading all that debt on the backs of taxpayers.”
Tolls would not end the need to borrow for major transportation projects, but the debt service would be paid from a fortified special transportation fund and not compete with borrowing for needs such as schools, clean water plants, and affordable housing.
In New Haven, Lamont, Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz and Transportation Commissioner Joseph J. Giulietti and others boarded the 11:35 a.m. train to Hartford, marking the first anniversary of the Hartford Line.
From July 2018 through April 2019, the Hartford Line averaged 51,000 passengers a month, with 2,000 boardings on a typical weekday. The highest weekday ridership was 3,500 on the day before Thanksgiving. It is expected to record 630,000 passenger trip for the year, far more than the 583,500 originally projected.
Customer reviews are positive, with 87.6 percent report being satisfied with their experience.
“It’s nice to have something that’s so positive to talk about, what has happened here with this Hartford Line,” said Giulietti, the former head of the Metro-North commuter rail system. “It’s been a success on every level.”
Lamont and his administration say transportation, including faster rail service from Hartford to New Haven to Stamford and New York City, are crucial to economic growth as corporations increasingly view metropolitan areas as the key to attracting a millennial workforce.
“For those of you who have millennials, you know that this is the future,” Giulietti said. “They want to know they can live, work and enjoy life in their communities and not have to rely on automobiles to go back and forth.”
Bysiewicz said the Hartford Line is not only attracting passengers, but it is continuing to attract transit-oriented development along the rail line in places like Wallingford and Meriden.
“This is the future,” Lamont said. “This is not the past.”
Passengers boarding and exiting the 473 train barely paused at seeing the governor, his entourage and an array of reporters. But a conductor gave him a nod of appreciation for echoing his last call for passengers to get on board.
“You want a hat?” he asked. “You gotta have a hat.”