Sen. Martin Looney and other Democrats addressing reporters, calling tolls not "palatable." mark Pazniokas / ctmirror.org
Gov. Ned Lamont talks with reporters after Wednesday’s meeting with Senate Democrats. Keith M. Phaneuf / ctmirror.org
Gov. Ned Lamont talks with reporters after Wednesday’s meeting with Senate Democrats. Keith M. Phaneuf / ctmirror.org

The Senate Democratic majority effectively took highway tolls off the table Wednesday as a means to leverage low-cost federal financing of Gov. Ned Lamont’s sweeping $21 billion plan to maintain and modernize Connecticut’s aging transportation infrastructure over the next decade.

“I think we need to find something that is broadly palatable in the General Assembly and also to the public,” said Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven.

Senate Democrats met for two hours with Lamont in their third-floor caucus room at the State Capitol, then discussed the governor’s CT2030 plan for more than another hour after Lamont departed.

They had one small piece of good news for Lamont once they emerged to face the press. The senators, who hold a 22-14 majority in the upper chamber, are ready to offer “broad-based support” for the transit, highway and bridge investments in CT2030 — and they would like to act on them before the General Assembly returns in regular session in February, Looney said.

But no one made a move to pick up the tab.

“I think we all want to move forward on a plan, we just have got to figure out how to fund it,” said Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk.

Neither leader would unequivocally pronounce tolls dead as they spoke outside the Senate caucus room, but off to the side stood a furious David Roche, the leader of the Connecticut Building Trades. He quickly decoded their comments as a firm rejection of the governor’s financing plan.

Sen. Martin Looney and other Democrats addressing reporters. They called tolls not “palatable.” mark Pazniokas / ctmirror.org
Sen. Martin Looney and other Democrats addressing reporters. They called tolls not “palatable.” mark Pazniokas / ctmirror.org

“What about the 26,000 jobs?” Roche said, a reference to the annual construction hiring necessary to the carry out the plan.

And several sources familiar with the caucus discussion confirmed that Looney’s message  was, in fact, for the governor to give up on highway tolls that could have raised $320 million annually.

The Lamont administration offered no immediate comment on the leaders’ comments, but the governor conceded earlier after his meeting that he was leaving without any commitments to vote for his plan, as drafted.

“We had a chance to go state senator-by-state senator, exactly what it means for your town, exactly what it means for the future of the state,” Lamont said. “They came back and said ‘Boy, there’s some political issues here. Let’s think about it.’ ”

Attention now will shift to Senate Republicans, who plan to outline a no-tolls alternative Thursday, and how that is received by a Democratic governor unable to do business with a Democratic leadership in the Senate on one of his key priorities.

Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, said he was willing to vote for a transportation plan that  placed tolls on interstate highways, where about 40 percent of the revenue would be projected to come from out-of-state drivers. But he objected to inclusion of Routes 8 and 9 in CT2030, highways with little interstate traffic.

Sen. James Maroney, D-Milford, who campaigned as a supporter of trucks-only tolls, said he believes the governor has succeeded in convincing the caucus that transportation is an immediate need in Connecticut, even if he found no consensus on financing.

“I’m looking forward to seeing what he comes up with in response,” said Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown.

One sign of how badly the caucus went for Lamont was that his chief of staff, Ryan Drajewicz, and Looney’s, Vinnie Mauro, exited the room to converse at length in adjacent the empty Senate chamber.

The governor acknowledged the political risks those backing tolls would face, but dismissed any argument that the risk justified delaying a long-overdue rebuild for an aging, overcrowded transportation system.

“I said, ‘I’m sorry. I’m asking you to cast a tough vote,’ ” Lamont said. “‘You’ve inherited a mess. This goes back 30 or 40 years. You’ve got a Special Transportation Fund that goes underwater in five years.’ ”

Looney has been an obstacle to the passage of Lamont’s plan since his original proposal in February, viewing a Democratic vote for tolls without some Republican support as a risk to the Democratic majority in 2020, when lawmakers are on the ballot and Lamont is not.

The governor now must decide how much of his plan is affordable and how it can be financed. To obtain federal low-cost financing, Lamont needs to identify a dedicated revenue stream.

The $1.7 billion Special Transportation Fund, which represents 8% of state’s annual budget, pays for Department of Transportation operations and the debt service on financing for highway, bridge and rail upgrades. And that borrowing qualifies Connecticut for more than $700 million in matching federal transportation grants.

The chiefs of staffs: Vinnie Mauro, left, and Ryan Drajewicz, in a side meeting in the empty Senate chamber mark Pazniokas / ctmirror.org

State analysts project the Special Transportation Fund would fall into deficit, and possibly insolvency, by 2025 — if Connecticut accelerates a capital program that does nothing to relieve congestion and barely maintains a state of good repair.

DOT officials have estimated Connecticut should be spending about $400 million-to-$500 million more per year on infrastructure work than it currently does.

And Lamont says tolls are the only realistic option to make this happen.

The governor’s proposal calls for 14 tolling gantries scattered across the state, primarily around bridges in need of repair.

The plan calls for tolls ranging from 50 cents to $1 per gantry. Holders of a Connecticut E-Z Pass would get a 20% discount, paying between 40 and 80 cents per gantry. Heavy trucks would pay between $3.50 and $7, less with a Connecticut E-Z Pass.

“I know we’d all love to put this off,” Lamont said. “I’d love a delay, maybe a study, how about a commission? But that’s not our choice right now.”

Making this hard choice, the governor said, could generate about $315 million per year.

This new tolling revenue, coupled with additional sales tax receipts Lamont would dedicate to transportation, not only would allow Connecticut to borrow more for infrastructure work, but also would permit more than $130 million per year in cash financing of repairs — sparing the state huge interest costs.

While there has been some speculation at the Capitol that Senate Democrats might support taxation of marijuana sales and a new fee on sports betting to support transportation, Lamont said those options were not discussed in caucus.

But even if those were approved, they would not generate the revenues available via tolls. 

Some estimates offered by marijuana-legalization advocates are that Connecticut could raise as much as $60 million in the first fiscal year and $170 million in the second after taxation of marijuana sales for recreational use has begun. The take on sports betting was projected at about $30 million to $40 million per year.

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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29 Comments

  1. “I think we need to find something that is broadly palatable in the General Assembly and also to the public,” said Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven.

    Translation—The Dems knew they’d get no Republican votes so they didn’t want to have to take all the heat for supporting the plan.

  2. Great news. Thank you to all who actually stood up for us citizens. There is plenty of money in the 21 billion we send.

  3. As someone else mentioned previously, no one in Hartford can ever think about cutting one dollar of expense. It all has to be about more revenue. $400 Million on a $21B budget is just under 2%. That is pocket change except in Hartford where not one dime can be spared.

  4. The People don’t want tolls; Democrats read the tea leaves.

  5. No one should be surprised by this “no vote” but it is pathetic that Senate Democrats did not propose or have alternative plan ready, what have they been doing? There is no leadership in the Democrat Senate, they are political animals and bureaucrats whose policies are solidly anti-growth and have damaged Connecticut’s economy. Gov. Lamont learned a valuable lesson about Democrat “leadership” but he also showed weakness, by not criticizing his own party for not proposing an alternate plan. Governor, they don’t care you are a nice guy they only care about maintaining control, unbalanced power is the problem.

    The obvious path forward is to reallocate funds from other government programs In order to raise about $400 million in revenue to secure loans, we need about 2% per year for 5 years. We already pay enough in taxes we are just spending it on the wrong things.

  6. The intelligent, thoughtful and pragmatic solution is to reduce state service operating costs. The best way to do this is to shed ownership of non-essential state properties and outsourcing of any high cost, inefficient organizations. A great place to start would be to outsource the DMV and shift numerous services provided by HSS to private non-profit providers. It’s really about smart business and prudent spending.

    1. Have you ever looked at the salaries at “non-profit” providers who live on state money? This is all public record through the IRS Form 990’s they are required to publish. Google any number of them in CT. and I think the salaries and other compensation would shock you. As an example one CEO in 2017 for a “Community Health Center” made 499K with 37K of other compensation. These people are just grossly overpaid state employees.

      1. Hi Jack, in the interest of fostering deeper discussion, can you provide a specific citation for the CEO salary? This will be a handy point of reference for any commenters who wish to reply.

      2. Absolutely. I am using Mr. Mark Masselli, CEO of the Community Health Center in Middletown, CT who gets lots of state funding. Google “Community Health Center IRS Form 990” and the most current published IRS Form 990 is from 2017. It lists top executive salaries. His salary for 2017 was 499K with 37K in other compensation. Many other overpaid people with that group. All non-profits have bloated salaries such just like this. This people are basically state employees.

  7. While it’s certainly a small sample size, the one answer I almost always heard from toll opposers I spoke with was that it’s a matter of trust.

    Too often in CT, we’ve been sold a bill of goods on revenue sources, their uses, and spending in general. Specifically regarding tolls, it quickly became a ‘crisis’ when car sales taxes were detoured from the Transportation lockbox. The Gov. first assured us only out-of-state trucks would pay tolls, which quickly changed to all trucks and finally all vehicles.

    People simply don’t trust what “Hartford” tells us.They say honesty, for a change, would go a long way.

    1. “They say honesty, for a change, would go a long way.”

      It would, but perhaps the politicians rely on the short memories of the voters. The challenge is to remember the commitments made when the revenue sources were imposed each time the politicians divert the funds. Voter tend to forget this until another “New” revenue source is suggested and NOT when the funds first get diverted.

  8. Who doesn’t want tolls? Count in all the long-haul logistics industry, AKA truckers, who choose CT’s highways as the less-expensive, most cost-effective route to New England and Canada. Do they vote or pay taxes here? Nope. Well, logically, they would support the CT GOP.

    1. Your first question is humorous. The better questions are these: Who wants tolls? Where is the I want tolls petition? Where are the I want tolls street protests? Where are the I want tolls rallies? Where are the I want tolls lawn signs? Where are the I want tolls shirts? Where is the I want tolls web site? Where are the I want tolls capitol protests? What towns have passed We want tolls town resolutions?

      The well documented answer to your first question is – Connecticut’s citizens. Public opinion surveys from Quinnipiac and Sacred Heart since 2009 show a majority of Ct citizens don’t want tolls. It’s really that simple.

      1. Where is the question in any public opinion survey “Would you accept tolls?” or “Under what constraints would you accept tolls?” Survey results very much depend on how the questions are framed and on who decides what the multiple choice answers will be.

        Obvious no one (other than politicians & industry lobbyists who benefit from them) WANTS tolls.

    2. I don’t want tolls either, and I live here and I’m Independent. You’re right they may not pay taxes in the form you envision, but they sell transportation. All those long-haul logistics industry, AKA truckers, will simply add the cost of the tolls into the transportation costs and you’ll end up paying for them and a higher tax as a result of the increased cost. Sounds like a loser all the way around.

    3. Well, if they’re headed to Canada they won’t need to pay any tolls – I-95 to I-91 – no tolls.

  9. “I’d love a delay, maybe a study, how about a commission? …”
    First Guv, consider changing the make-up of the Toll Commission – the majority of that Commission HAS to consist of elected legislators – so that they HAVE to take ownership of any changes in toll rates and/or the number /locations of toll gantries. Until then – NO TOLLS.

    1. Hi CT_Yankee_1, in the interest of providing clarification, the governor’s latest plan calls for the legislature to set toll rates, not a separate quasi-public agency or commission.

      1. I will trust that you know more than I about the latest details. Does the legislature also determine which locations, or is that some other entity’s decision? This seems to be a constantly changing plan so it’s hard for us lowly citizens to keep up.

      2. Under the most recent version of the governor’s plan, any toll gantries not authorized by the legislature now would have to receive legislative approval in the future before being constructed.

  10. Consensus on “we need to do something” is an easy thing to come to. The Governor has addressed the hard part–funding. He wants tolls; they make sense (no pun intended). Users should pay. I understand the skepticism of those who are wary of trusting government with more revenue based on mixed results of how these dollars have been spent in the past. That said, the state’s future depends upon infrastructure, and our transportation system, in particular, is key. So much backs up from ease in getting to where you want to go. Much of our congestion on roadways is caused by thru traffic. Pay for the privilege. Lock the revenue up for use on transportation alone. Take advantage of matching funds; create jobs; ease the transportation jam.

    1. If the users should pay, why is so much of the money collected going to trains and buses which continue to be subsidized by car sales taxes, gas tax, and other DMV fees? How about train and bus fares be placed at a level that supports its own infrastructure and operating expenses? As for out of state revenue, most of that money will be used up in toll construction costs and yet another bloated government agency.

  11. So where is the Democratic “Profile in Courage” Lamont was asking the Republicans for? Where is his call to his party to be courageous?

    If it is the right thing to do for the state, the courageous thing to do would be to push through the plan and forget about the potential consequences in the next election. Frankly, the really courageous thing to do is to push through the complete 56 gantry (or whatever) toll program and fix the state’s problems.

    So much for courage. Only if they can hide behind Republicans. Sad.

  12. I find it really sad that our governance is no longer based on the good for the people, but for getting re-elected. This is clear in this statement. It’s just sad and no wonder people are fed up with politicians

    “a Democratic vote for tolls without some Republican support as a risk to the Democratic majority in 2020, when lawmakers are on the ballot and Lamont is not.”

    1. It really is sad. What is the point of having or maintaining a majority if you don’t use it to implement policies that you believe in? It’s almost as if the sole point is to obtain a pension and lifetime healthcare benefits for you and your political friends rather than actually doing something.

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