Gov. Ned Lamont, flanked by Sen. Martin Looney, left, and Sen. Bob Duff and Rep. Matt Ritter. mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org
Protesters outside the Executive Residence while the governor and lawmakers met inside. mark Pazniokas / ctmirror.org

Gov. Ned Lamont and Democratic legislative leaders united Tuesday behind a transportation financing concept that would rely on trucks-only tolls, a breakthrough for a governor whose own party had repeatedly frustrated his major first-year objective of modernizing Connecticut’s aging highways and commuter rail system.

Senate Democratic leaders, who had summarily dismissed Lamont’s two earlier proposals for tolls on all motor vehicles as politically unpalatable and rejected his characterization of transportation infrastructure as a crisis, endorsed the new approach and insisted it should be refined and passed in special session, most likely in January.

“It is absolutely essential that we get this done,” said Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven. “There is a real crisis in our state that we cannot just delay any longer in terms of the needed reconstruction of our roads and bridges. We need to get this done now. We don’t want the issue to drag into the 2020 session. We think we have momentum on that issue, and the time to move is now.”

With the Democratic governor and leaders of the Democratic legislative majorities agreeing on a transportation financing approach for the first time since Lamont made his initial proposal in February, their challenge is to fully develop what is now a detailed outline and convince their caucuses it is financially sound and politically defensible.

Lamont and the legislators spoke to reporters after a meeting at the Executive Residence that marked the end of the administration’s efforts to find a bipartisan approach to financing CT2030, the governor’s $21 billion list of transportation projects that he says can remake commuting life and spark economic growth over the next 10 years.

“This plan works, and the numbers add up,” Lamont said.

Rhode Island implemented the nation’s first trucks-only tolls last year, drawing a legal challenge from the trucking industry that is pending. Lamont proposed trucks-only tolls during the 2018 campaign, only to push for a broader plan once elected.

House Democrats resurrected the idea after the Senate balked at automobile tolls.

Gov. Ned Lamont, flanked by Sen. Martin Looney, left, and Sen. Bob Duff and Rep. Matt Ritter. mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

“I think that the House has really shown us the way by coming out with the truck-only plan, which is in effect a return to a version of what the governor had proposed in the election last year and is in fact the only plan that is voter approved, given the virtue of the fact he was elected running on that proposal,” Looney said.

Taking turns standing before a fireplace in a formal living room at the governor’s residence, the legislative leaders quickly delivered a preview of how the plan will be promoted by Democrats and panned by Republicans in special session and during the 2020 campaign for control of the General Assembly.

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, who has been arguing that truck tolls would impact consumers by making goods more expensive, said the GOP was unsure if Lamont was correct in saying “the numbers add up.”

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, whose caucus offered an alternative to tolls that would have required spending $1.5 billion of the $2.5 billion budget reserves, said no one believes that state government can be trusted to stick with truck-only tolls.

“The confidence it’s going to remain a truck toll is very low,” Fasano said.

Democrats say they would be open to any legislative language, including a constitutional amendment, clarifying that automobile tolls are off the table in Connecticut.

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said Republicans are stoking fears about what could come next, rather than debate what Democrats are actually proposing.

He warned the GOP alternative would leave Connecticut without the financial cushion to weather a recession, jeopardizing residents who rely on state services and potentially exposing them to tax increases.

“My question to them is why are they picking truck drivers over our middle class?” Aresimowicz said.

Each side accused the other of intransigence, and the exchange continued in an exchange of emailed statements.

“The comments made by legislative Democrats and Gov. Lamont following today’s meeting were nothing but political talking points defending their insatiable desire to tax people more,” Fasano said. “They want tolls, they want to borrow more, they want more tax revenue from Connecticut residents – on top of their new taxes on plastic bags and groceries. They do not want to work with Republicans to do what is truly best for our state and its residents. They want tolls. Period.”

The Lamont administration responded in kind.

The Republican minority leaders, Rep. Themis Klarides and Sen. Len Fasano. mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

“Senator Fasano must be talking about a completely different meeting and a totally different plan,” said Max Reiss, the governor’s communications director. “Today, Governor Lamont asked legislative leaders from both sides of the aisle to come together and discuss for nearly two hours how to grow the state’s economy and fix its broken transportation system. For the last several months, the governor’s administration has invested considerably in collaboratively working towards a bipartisan solution – one that included Senator Fasano.”

With some creative financing, the Democrats say they could come within $1 billion of the $21 billion spending goal of CT2030, even though truck tolls would produce an estimated $180 million, slightly more than half the $320 million projected in the plan Lamont released on Nov. 7. Lamont needs a dedicated revenue stream to obtain low-cost federal financing.

That tolling revenue gap is significant. Democrats did not disclose all the details for making up the difference, but they highlighted two solutions.

Low-interest federal loans the state is seeking for bridge and rail improvements would be financed over 35 years, rather than the 27 years anticipated in Lamont’s earlier plan. According to the administration, this would save an average of about $16.3 million per year in debt costs between 2020 and 2030, a total of about $180 million.

Another element is a more modest version of the GOP alternative: Using some of the budget reserves to pay down pension debt, which would lessen the annual contributions now required. Lamont and Democratic legislators would tap between $250 million and $260 million earmarked for the budget reserves after Sept. 30, 2021.

By then, according to projections by the administration and the legislature’s non-partisan Office of Fiscal Analysis, the reserves will exceed the statutory limit of 15% of operating costs, or about $3 billion. Once that threshold is crossed, excess reserves automatically are used to pay down pension debt.

The GOP option would have transferred $1.5 billion from the rainy day fund into the pension fund immediately, allowing the state to reduce annual pension contributions by almost $130 million per year through 2030 and put those dollars into transportation.

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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18 Comments

  1. Truck tolls will become car tolls. A lot of “ifs” in this plan starting with the inevitable trucking industry litigation going in Lamonts favor. And those Federal loans still need to be secured and locked in at a favorable rate.
    Good luck Dems! It’ll be good to get everyone on record with a vote…
    No trust, no TOLLS!!!

  2. This guy simply won’t give up until our pockets are completely empty. How about finding some spending cuts to chip away at 124 billion in unfunded obligations? How about a spending cut anywhere?

  3. Remember the STF lockbox vote in 2018 and they stole the money anyway. Tolls on trucks will very quickly become tolls on cars…regardless of what the legislation says.

  4. The Republicans need to maintain a strong, unified front in resisting any type of tolling. The STF shortfall is result of manipulation and redirection of previously mandated funding sources. The Democrat Party has rewarded the SEIU Members with the $15.00 Minimum Wage. They have rewarded Graduate Students and the LGBTQ Community with Paid Family Leave. They have rewarded the AFSMCE Members and Teachers
    by refinancing fringe benefits. Now they look to pay back the IUOE and other Construction Union members with 26,000 new paying union due paying members, and endless cost overruns and overtime. This whole scheme has been nothing more than vote buying of constitutes. It is nothing more, and it is shameful, disingenuous, and immoral.

  5. What if the federal government rejects truck only tolling which I believe they will what then?I don t think the trucking lobby will be quiet about this .It clearly discriminates.

  6. The real crisis in this state is that people,like Martin Looney, are still wielding power.
    sadly, if it is not him, it will be someone else who has been “groomed” by the party and special interests.

  7. I just love in 1 week. A new plan is thrown out there and it magically works. The numbers work. Just like it did in the budget this year. Except now the budget that was on time and on point is no longer. Repubs should stage large protest need to leave the state and cause national attention like they did in Oregon last year. Or like Wisconsin did a few ago. This is now the only way to save us citizens.

  8. The state has tens of billions of dollars in unfunded state retirement liabilities and yet its wants to borrow more for transportation. The idea that a new transportation system will bring forth a rejuvenated economy is bunk. And its foolish to believe that tolls will stop with trucks given the history of politicians plundering the transportation fund. Of course, no one takes a serious look at cutting or even freezing state spending to come up with transportation funds.

    See my avatar if you have any question where this state is going.

  9. The unions need more $$$ plain and simple and the Democrats need more union members paying more dues to keep their platform afloat. Many union members opted out of paying dues as a result of the Janus decision. Not all CT union employees want their hard earned money going toward the Democrat agenda. They are desperate and Lamont is not a leader.

  10. House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said Republicans are stoking fears about what could come next, rather than debate what Democrats are actually proposing.

    I’m sure that has nothing to do with the fact we know, from extensive experience, what ALWAYS comes next. /s

  11. Rep. Aresimowcz says Republicans are favoring truckers over the middle class. A meaningless statement from someone who is leaving office shortly. If trucks are tolled, the middle class will pay with price increases. The Speaker could care less. I agree, put this to a vote. We will then know who to vote out.

  12. I love that the democrats want the republicans at the table so they can blame them for the mess the government is in. The democrats has ruined the state from many years and now the bill is due. How are they going to pay for it? More taxes in the name of tolls. After the number of campaign promises that were broken shouldn’t we look at that will be next. “Trucks only” is only the beginning and we know this.

  13. So the Governor has decided to give tolls one more chance.
    Which means that bonding will be delayed longer.
    How many Senate Democrats are complaining about another attempt to over-rule them? And about having to take responsibility for the … inconvenience caused by the Governor’s hostage-taking?
    But how many will be intimidated?
    Trucks-only tolls can be overturned by the Rhode Island case or by the federal government. With those risks unresolved, any action would be premature. So this situation will continue for a while.
    And, as every article on the subject should record, tolls wouldn’t start producing revenue for 5 years (though fewer gantries might shorten the time needed). So the pursuit of tolls means there is no transportation emergency; there’s only a new revenue source.

  14. I love that the democrats want the republicans at the table so they can blame them for the mess the government is in. The democrats has ruined the state from many years and now the bill is due. How are they going to pay for it? More taxes in the name of tolls. After the number of campaign promises that were broken shouldn’t we look at that will be next. “Trucks only” is only the beginning and we know this.

  15. A friend of mine has compared the tolls saga to the Peanuts cartoon featuring Lucy and the football. Charlie Brown wants to kick the football and Lucy says she’ll hold it for him. But then she yanks it away just as he goes to kick it. She promises not to do it again. But she does. Over and over. So much for promises and trust, right?

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