Protesters greet Gov. Ned Lamont and Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz on their way to meeting on tolls. mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org
Protesters greet Gov. Ned Lamont and Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz on their way to meeting on tolls. mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

The administration of Gov. Ned Lamont re-launched its campaign for highway tolls in a private two-pronged pitch to wary legislative leaders Wednesday, setting Connecticut’s growing transportation infrastructure needs against a special transportation fund on the verge of insolvency.

Its reboot of a plan originally rolled out in February offers sweeteners to lawmakers concerned about the financial impact on constituents, primarily by lowering the income tax on the first $10,000 of taxable income from 3 percent to 2 percent, providing a savings of between $90 and $180. The plan also would offer discounts on tolls and lower fares on bus transit.

But the legislature appears no closer to returning in special session to address the governor’s proposal to raise funds and alleviate congestion with variably priced tolls on the Merritt Parkway and Interstates 84, 91 and 95. Republican leaders said they were invited only because Democrats cannot pass a tolls bill on their own, and no GOP support is forthcoming.

“No, we don’t support tolls, period,” said Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven. He added that he believes Senate Democrats would not call a vote on tolls without some Republican support, an assertion Senate Democratic leaders would not confirm or dispute.

“I would not comment on that directly until we have a caucus,” said Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven. “I do believe it it would be preferable for an issue of this magnitude to be bipartisan.”

“I think the governor genuinely wants a bipartisan solution that all four caucuses can support,” said Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk. “He invited Republican leaders, because he wants everybody at the table.”

“I do believe it it would be preferable for an issue of this magnitude to be bipartisan.”

Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney

After a nearly two-hour presentation, Lamont smiled when asked how it went. He said, “Well, as they say after those State Department summits, I’d say we had frank and honest discussions.”

What he needs is a way to reassure Senate Democrats, who now hold a 22-14 majority after sharing power in an 18-18 Senate for the previous two years, that tolls would not cost the party its majority. House Democrats hold a 91-60 majority, but their leadership has indicated it would not act on tolls until the Senate demonstrates it has the votes.

The regular session ended two weeks ago without a vote in either chamber on Lamont’s proposal to return tolls to the states’ highways after an absence of 30 years, a defeat for a new Democratic governor who says a new and stable source of transportation funding is the key to the revival of a lackluster economy.

Protesters greeted Lamont and Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz as they walked across the hall of the State Capitol from the governor’s office suite to a conference room, shouting, “No tolls!” Their presence was a reminder of the grass-roots opposition to tolls, encouraged by Republicans and the trucking industry.

The meeting was geared to legislative leaders, not the press or public. Reporters were given copies of a power-point presentation delivered by two top aides: Melissa McCaw, who oversees the budget as secretary of policy and management, and Joseph J. Giulietti, the commissioner of transportation.

McCaw said the special transportation fund is in crisis: The state is about $400 million short of the $1.25 billion the needs to spend annually  to keep its transportation network in a state of good repair. The actual costs are nearly $2 billion — $1.45 billion for highways and $550 million for transit — but the federal government contributes $750 million.

Lamont said there is little dispute about the extent of the problem, although Fasano and House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, demurred on this point, saying they needed time to study the administration’s numbers.

The governor said the biggest challenge is to convince Republicans that new transportation revenue would be well spent.

“I think talking to my Republican colleagues, there is a just sense that any money spent is money misspent by government going back 10 years,” Lamont said. Of tolls, he said, “That money could only go to transportation.”

Transportation expenses are outpacing revenue by a 5-1 margin, and Connecticut is falling behind on nearly every measure in maintaining a network of 3,719 miles of roads, 4,016 roadway bridges, 103 miles of rail, and a fleet of 600 buses, 486 rail cars and 28 locomotives, according the administration.

Fifteen percent of interstate highway bridges in Connecticut are in poor condition, second only to Rhode Island’s 24 percent in the northeast. To avoid losing federal funds, the state is now required to earmark at least $80 million this year for repairs on bridges in the national highway system.

Beginning in the 2022 fiscal year, the special transportation fund would begin running deficits just trying to maintain roads and bridges in a state of good repair — sooner if the state tackles highway widening or other improvements.

Lamont, who lives in Greenwich, said maintaining a state of good repair is a must. He recalled crossing the Mianus River Bridge on I-95 just hours before its collapse in 1983.

“That’s not going to happen in this state, and that’s not going to happen on our watch,” Lamont said. “I guarantee you that, but we have got to be careful, and it’s time to make those investments.”

A massive rebuilding program dropped the number of bridges in poor condition from 685 after Mianus to a low of 148 in 1998. The number crept up to 341 in 2013, prompting a renewed effort at repairs.

Wednesday’s presentation attempted to deliver what was missing in the administration’s earlier attempts to sway the public and lawmakers: A vivid description of worsening congestion to be expected in Fairfield County without improvements, and the impact of selective I-95 widening and exit improvements that could cut some commutes from 96 minutes to 69 minutes.

It still had the hallmarks of a work in progress, however, offering some stark examples of what selected commutes could look like by 2040 without a massive infusion of new revenue, but falling short of offering a comprehensive picture of public transit and highway commutes with and without the improvements the administration says tolls could bring.

Instead, the report offered “representative” examples of projects now under design to ease bottlenecks, promising to cut rush hours commutes — as much as 18 minutes a day in Danbury and nearly 23 minutes in Middletown, where traffic backs up at two traffic signals on Route 9.

“I think people in that room there knew exactly how transformative these investments could be,” Lamont said.

He said Giulietti talked in some detail about how adding a 6.3-mile northbound lane between exits 19 and 28 on I-95 would relieve a bottleneck in Bridgeport that backs up evening rush-hour traffic towards Stamford and the New York border. The new lane would cut the travel time from the state line to Bridgeport from 63 minutes to 41 minutes.

“I have to keep telling that story,” Lamont said. “And I have to do a better job of telling that story.”



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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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15 Comments

  1. So to get tolls, Lamont is offering to lower the state income tax on the first $10,000 of income by 1 percent? This is total re-arranging of the deck chairs. Why does Lamont want the grief if this job when his proposals are so weak. State employees are going to receive 3.5 percent raises for each of the next two years. Why don’t we look there for savings? Is any state employee going to leave their position if they get a 2 percent raise? Not too many in the private sector are getting 7 percent raises over the next two years. State employees have to take some lumps for complete job security and benefits that don’t exist anymore.

    1. On of the enduring mysteries of Lamont’s governorship is why he wanted the job in the first place, given how tepid and ambiguous he has been in the first months in office.

      1. He wanted to prevent the election of a Democrat who might have imposed a substantial tax increase on Ned and his wealthy friends. Note that all his revenue proposals are regressive, putting most of the burden on the poor and middle class (like tolls).

  2. No trust, no TOLLS! Against the backdrop of a Lamont lie that started this whole deal, the sneaky 7% raise given to staffers, the total attack on FOI and transparency and the raiding of the STF fund we have this latest attempt of winning hearts and minds with an income tax break.
    Well we’ve seen this bait and switch movie before. No thanks, no trust and no TOLLS!

  3. Ned said the money would be spent wisely yet this week he had a photo op touting the success of the New Haven to Springfield train line. This “success” cost $875,000 PER daily user to build. It was an enormous expense for so few riders and it will continue to cost us as subsidies are required to keep it functioning (similar to the bus to nowhere). We need to be smarter with our money and realize we are not New York or Boston. The highways have over 1000 times the users than that rail line and we continue to steal money from road and bridge maintenance to fund wasteful projects that help so few. Don’t just watch the photo ops, do the math and see how they are robbing us blind. This is a created crisis as CT residents don’t earn a dollar that the politicians don’t want to steal.

    1. Absolutely right. As I’ve said, part of Gov. Lamont’s problem is that many taxpayers are deeply skeptical of how the revenue will actually be spent.

  4. The problem is the legislatures own making. How in the world can anyone trust them to “cure” it and Ned’s reference to the Mianus Bridge is just another big lie…it was a relatively new bridge that failed due to faulty construction,overseen by the state.

    1. Regardless, if bridges and roads in the state of Connecticut are in such a state disrepair that they create a public safety issue, and Gov. Lamont knows this, he has a duty to inform the public of this. Anything less is dereliction of duty. Then he must come up with a concrete action plan for addressing the safety problem, including a plan that doesn’t include toll revenue, given the the majority of Connecticut’s residents’ expression opposition to such a proposal.
      The real travesty, especially considering the likelihood that Gov. Lamont won’t run for a second term, is that Gov. Lamont has failed to meaningful address the public employee pension and health care crisis that is throttling this state’s finances.

  5. They moan about the STF not being solvent as if the money that was intended for it just vanished!
    They have diverted more then 9 billion dollars from the STF and used that money to fund their pet social projects…
    If you are confused as to who the “they” is… it is the democrats!!!

  6. In his third debate at WPLR, Ned Lamont said clear as day that this toll intitiative was for “trucks”. When asked about tolls his one word response was:

    “trucks”

    So now we are supposed to have trust he asks? When will these people stop trying to destroy the middle class? Democrats used to be FOR the middle class, but no more.

  7. Perhaps if the budget didn’t divert $160 Million from the transportation fund to pay for operations (a practice that has been going on for years), I’d be a bit more sympathetic to the tolls argument.

    There was a good editorial in the WSJ called “A Connecticut Tax Story” yesterday. Worth a read.

  8. this is an excellent presentation. anti-toll people and groups need to face the facts. it is time to turn this state around or the future is quite bleak. Lee Erdmann

    1. Excuse me for my lack of enthusiasm for tolls. Every time I turn around, the state is taking more of my very hard earned revenue and punishing.my business for attempting to employee people. The public employees are insatiable. I have no more to give or to be absconded. And I could care less about the state’s future as I won’t be here.

  9. That is just it. I do believe that Ned in his heart is trying to do the right thing. I don’t want to bash him like most do. But what Ned is missing is our 110% lack of belief that our gov’t will do the right thing by the money. We do not believe that the 800 million will stay in the fund even though the feds require it. We don’t believe the GA will do the right thing. Even if under the Lamont admin is adamant in keeping the funds in the STF. We don’t the next governor to do follow your lead. Too many examples of gov’t abuse over decades will never allow someone like me to go for this. To be honest. I’m not even totally against the toll idea. I just don’t trust our gov’t

  10. This article is about the Governor’s presentation on tolls and secondarily about legislators’ response. But that’s a limited discussion.
    The first fact about tolls is that no revenue would appear for 5 years. Any discussion leaving out that fact can be considered advocacy for tolls.
    The second fact about tolls is that the Governor apparently wasn’t advocating for increased bonding. He also accepted diversion of funds from transportation.
    So there is apparently no immediate transportation funding problem. And there won’t be one for years to come.
    Many legislators don’t want to pass tolls. And since there’s no urgency, why should they?

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