Modern tolls use overhead gantries like this one in Australia. Connecticut Department of Transportation
The governor launched a new transportation plan Thursday that includes installing toll gantries, like these on the Massachusetts Turnpike, on 14 bridges in Connecticut.

As Gov. Ned Lamont tries to convince lawmakers that tolls would remain fixed at a modest price for at least a decade, his own history is working against him.

Yes, Lamont alienated voters and lawmakers by going back on his campaign pledge not to impose tolls on any vehicles other than large trucks, but the trust problem is bigger than that.

Lamont’s plan to keep tolls as low as 40 cents per gantry hinges on a complementary move: shifting hundreds of millions of dollars in sales tax receipts into the transportation system.

But just last June, Lamont and his fellow Democrats in the legislature blocked a major infusion of sales tax revenues earmarked for the Special Transportation Fund. This was done despite a new constitutional “lockbox” provision specifically created to prevent such a move.

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides and Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano spoke at May rally against tolls at the Capitol

That has left Republican legislative leaders asking why they should believe Lamont won’t divert those tax receipts a second time — especially if the economy tanks in a year or two — and simply boost tolls to make up the difference.

“This is not personal, but this is a question of trust,” said House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, a staunch opponent of tolls. “He raided the Special Transportation Fund in his budget and did a run-around the constitutional lockbox. And now he’s claiming he’s going to put the money back in two years? What makes anybody think he’s not going to do the same thing again?”

“The biggest problem with their concept is the lack of trust in government,” said Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven. “It’s a major concern and it’s a concern, frankly, that’s interwoven into their whole plan.”

“He raided the Special Transportation Fund in his budget and did a run-around the constitutional lockbox. What makes anybody think he’s not going to do the same thing again?”

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides

This mistrust is misplaced, said Lamont’s communications director.

“The only thing more important to the governor than delivering those benefits is his word,” said Max Reiss.

Lamont’s predecessor, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the 2015 General Assembly first turned to the sales tax — Connecticut’s second-largest revenue source after the income tax — to shore up the Special Transportation Fund. The STF is a key portion of the budget that funds Department of Transportation operations as well as debt payments on borrowing for highway, bridge and rail projects.

Malloy and lawmakers approved a new series of escalating annual sales tax transfers that pumped about $320 million per year into transportation by 2018. Republican and Democratic legislators then upped the ante even further, ordering sales tax revenue transfers in larger and larger numbers through 2025.

“The only thing more important to the governor than delivering those benefits is his word.”

Lamont Spokesman Max Reiss

The key to protecting the fund transfer was a new state Constitutional amendment ratified by nearly 90% of voters last year.

That amendment mandated that once a revenue stream had been dedicated for transportation — such as gasoline tax revenues or a portion of sales tax receipts — it could not be diverted for another purpose.

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, talks about Gov. Ned Lamont’s transportation plan with reporters Thursday.

But when Lamont took office in January, he inherited a projected $3.5 billion deficit in the upcoming, two-year state budget.

To help whittle down that problem, Lamont insisted he didn’t have to follow the escalating revenue transfer schedule, saying the increases approved for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 fiscal years — though required by statute — technically hadn’t happened yet and could be canceled without violating the lockbox.

This would give Lamont an extra $266 million in sales tax receipts he could use to reduce the budget deficit.

Instead, he agreed to maintain the revenue transfer at the level it was when the lockbox was ratified in 2018. The transportation system would face some lean years, the administration argued, but would be fine by 2024 if lawmakers adopted tolls.

Republicans, who oppose tolls, immediately cried foul and said Lamont clearly carved out a loophole that violates both the will of voters and the spirit of the lockbox provision.

But if legislators embrace his new plan, Lamont is ready in 2022 to go back to the original sales tax transfer plan. By that point, the rest of the state budget would have to forfeit about $185 million in sales tax receipts to the transportation program.

Gov. Ned Lamont announces his CT2030 transportation plan Thursday at reSET Social Enterprise Trust in Hartford

Lamont “has always approached the budget as a dialogue between the executive and legislative branches,” Reiss said, adding that this “will stabilize the STF” and keep it solvent, even as Connecticut launches into a major new period of rebuilding.

As he announced details of his new CT2030 transportation plan Thursday, Lamont insisted he is still compromising. His February tolls plan was much more extensive, he said, and called for much larger investments to rebuild Connecticut’s aging, overcrowded infrastructure.

“If the legislature has a better idea how to pay for it, I’m all ears,” the governor said.

The governor’s plan also hinges on accessing low-interest federal financing, and Connecticut could not play games with its transportation fund if it hopes to secure those funds.

“If the legislature has a better idea how to pay for it, I’m all ears.”

Gov. Ned Lamont

“Unlocking low-interest federal loans for CT2030 requires demonstrating that Connecticut can afford to repay those loans while simultaneously meeting our other obligations,” Reese said.

Under the governor’s new plan, passenger car tolls of 50 cents to $1 would be charged on 14 bridges, with 20% discounts for Connecticut drivers with E-ZPass transponders, dropping the cost to 40 cents or 80 cents, depending on the time of day. Heavy trucks would pay between $3.50 and $7, less with a Connecticut E-ZPass.

Lamont also insists he can provide new legal protections to ensure these prices remain fixed through at least 2030.

Connecticut would write into the loan agreement with the federal government that toll rates would not change until the borrowed funds have been paid off, Lamont said. This would essentially lock them in contract through the late 2040s — when the loans are projected to be fully paid.

Both Fasano and Klarides said they need to research further how secure this professed safeguard is, and whether future legislatures or governors might have options to raise toll rates.

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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16 Comments

  1. CT residents, like me, would probably accept tolls—-but only a fool believes our State govt when it comes to taxes, fees, revenue, spending, etc.

  2. If tolls are only funding 10% of the total plan and they seem to be the only point of contention, why not cut the plan by 10% and lying, untrustworthy Ned can get 90% of his plan done. Sounds like a reasonable compromise for him to make.

    1. Kevin, the governor’s CT2030 plan calls for raising annual transportation spending from about $1.5 billion per year (the current level) to an average of $1.9 billion per year over the 2020s. Under this plan, tolls would cover about $320 million of that $400 million increase.

      1. $400 million can easily be re-allocated from other areas of the budget. For example a 2% reallocation equals $420 million. Problem solved. However, I would like to see a 5% reallocation of all budgets to transportation, this type of investment would make a statement and help businesses here.

  3. It’s a matter of trust pure and simple and we don’t trust this governor.
    He said truck only tolls and then once elected flipped to car and truck tolls.
    The raiding of the Special Transportation Fund as described above.
    The continued diverting of gas tax revenue into the General Fund, over a billion dollars since 2006.
    His creation of a $300 million educational slush fund without Freedom of Information Act transparency
    His creation of secret trials in the judical system.
    His hiring of his cousin’s son at $52k a year, poor, poor judgement.
    His attempt at a sneaky, regressive and shameful backdoor grocery tax which almost succeeded.
    And now “temporary” bridge tolls with a life of over 25 years (maybe)

    It’s a track record that doesn’t inspire trust does it?
    No trust, no TOLLS!

  4. Unfortunately, Gov Lamont has proven himself to be more of the same from politicians. False promises, empty words and broken trust. To be candid, I dont know how he and others can feel good about themselves when they misrepresen the truth and ignore the real issues and facts to drive a given agenda.
    My father once told me, “You can only give away your integrity just once. After that, it is too late to get it back.”

    1. Tell that to Joe Ganim,Ernie Newton,Eddie Perez,John Rowland and a bevy of corrupt Connecticut politicians who have no shame and a insatiable hunger for a public paycheck.

  5. So after earning the name “lying Ned”, he says “trust us this time. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. How can we not make it work already as the second highest taxed state in the country?

  6. I like how tolls are Ned’s panacea for everything, from congestion to broken down rail systems. How is that 30-30-30 working out? Senator Bergstein, the one term wonder, is pretty quiet these days and I for one (unfortunately I am in her district) am tired of taxation without representation!
    Yesterday I watched a state employee fill up her personal car at a state public works pump. Will tolls fix that?

  7. This is exactly the problem and will never get solved unless we turn raiding or changing the lock box back to the people/taxpayers. Again, set the revenue going into the STF, remove the pensions etc. and IF you are only going to do that why won’t you make it a voter referendum to change anything to do with the STF fund.

    Stop saying it is one side or the other -IT IS BOTH SIDES OF THE ISLE!

  8. What’s lacking in this phrase “20% discounts for Connecticut drivers with E-ZPass transponders…”?
    They will have to be CONNECTICUT E-ZPass transponders.
    Your MA FastLane transponder connected to a CT address will cost you an out-of-state fee. This means that all CT drivers with MA or NY transponders will have to get a CT transponder to get the discounted toll. Then, once you cross state lines, you’ll have to remember to switch the transponder.

    1. They want all that deposit money for the Connecticut transponders…sort of like your mattress fees and paint fees and bottle deposits. It adds up,biggly.

  9. Why create another monster to manage in State government? Just raise the income/and or sales tax and be done with it, or better yet, cut spending.

  10. tolls are paying for trains and buses. Is it still a user fee? Trains don’t use roads. I like how the state has to pay for Fairfield county to get to the N.Y.jobs they have. How about trying to get those jobs to move to CT by showing those out Of state folks we are coming for there jobs by providing low taxes and incentives to move here.

    1. The previous governor tried that with his DECD give-aways. Hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars of bonded debt,for what?
      UBS. RBS. Hybrid Insurance. Back9. The list is so long I no longer recall the names that took his money (our money) and left.
      You are correct though. The only reason I am here was that,back in the day, there was no state income tax and the trains ran frequently to NYC.
      And now? Our former governor works gets paid for “work” in Maine. His wife gets paid for a no-show Connecticut job and we get to pay the debt.
      Do you think his job in Maine had anything to do with Jackson Labs?

  11. Trust me after I lied to you over and over during the campaign? Trust me after I just raised your taxes again? Trust me after my party has lied to you over and over again? Trust me, I am a democrat.

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