Modern tolls use overhead gantries like this one in Australia. Connecticut Department of Transportation
Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff and Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney. keith m. phaneug / ctmirror.org

The Democratic majorities of the state House and Senate cautiously edged toward consensus Tuesday on a 10-year, $19 billion transportation infrastructure plan that would charge tolls for tractor trailers on a dozen Connecticut highway bridges.

With few caveats, House Democratic leaders said they could pass a downsized plan that would raise about $170 million in net revenue annually, a drop from the earlier financial projections of $187 million for a broader plan that included medium-sized trucks.

But Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, emerged from a long closed-door caucus with a significant list of questions and conditions that must be addressed before he can assure the 18 votes necessary for passage in the Senate.

“We have a contingent consensus of 18 members who have not rejected the concept of a bill to toll trucks on bridges only,” Looney said.

Democrats hold 22 of the 36 seats in the Senate. Eighteen votes would allow passage on a tie-breaking vote by the presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz.

One of the conditions set by some Senate Democrats was language making clear to the voting public in 2020 that a vote for tractor truck tolls was not a first step toward a broader tolling plan, evidence of the success Republicans and other toll opponents had framing the debate.

“We know already the Republican strategy seems to be to ignore the bill that we’re actually trying to pass and just say that it’s the first step toward universal tolling, which they want to run on,” Looney said. “And obviously we want to blunt that.”

By exempting all but the largest commercial trucks, the legislators and Gov. Ned Lamont are willing to forgo revenue in favor of a political benefit: Countless local small businesses that use box trucks and smaller vehicles now would be unaffected by tolls, presumably taking away potential supporters of the no-tolls movement.

“It would have captured a lot of the small businesses in the state, such as the oil trucks that deliver oil to our homes, the Fed Exes, the UPSes, the small box trucks,” Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, said of the previous version. “We wanted to minimize even that impact on Connecticut businesses.”

The change allowed House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, to frame the choice now before the General Assembly as imposing tolls on tractor trailers vs. borrowing that would be paid by all Connecticut taxpayers.

“I don’t want us to continue to pick 18 wheelers over the state of Connecticut. That’s what we’re talking about here,” Aresimowicz said. “It’s a silly discussion. We just need to move forward.”

Talking to reporters before the Senate Democrats outlined their “contingent” consensus, Republican minority leaders already were scoffing at the idea that Democrats could end the day with the commitments necessary for passage, questioning the quality of information available to lawmakers in the House and Senate caucuses.

“There is no toll plan. Let’s be clear. I’m not really sure what today was really about,” said Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven. “They don’t have a bill. They don’t have a plan. They’re saying it’s changing as we talk. The revenue is going down.”

House Democrats conceded that significant work remains, but said the parameters of the down-sized plan were clear to them, with a consensus in their caucus about toll rates, the classes of trucks to be tolled and the revenue that can be expected.

The Democrats’ plan would charge tolls only on tractor trailers trucks in Class 8 or higher. Federal Highway Administration
The Democrats’ plan would charge tolls only on tractor trailers trucks in Class 8 or higher. Federal Highway Administration

“There are some questions left to be answered. There is the finality of the bill actually being written up and getting the bill in their hands, so they can read it,” Aresimowicz said of his caucus members. “But I still feel very comfortable that we can move forward.”

But the Senate Democrats said later a key issue to be resolved is the responsibilities of a Transportation Oversight Board that would be created in the bill. Originally, the board was seen as way to review the construction priorities set by the DOT. 

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, Looney and Leone, the co-chair of the legislature’s Transportation Committee, would not rule out giving the board the authority to set toll rates — immediately inviting criticism from a no-tolls leader, Patrick Sasser.

“They want an oversight board that will control toll rates,” Sasser said in a Tweet. “No way will we ever allow these elected officials to pass the buck to some board.”

Looney said some Senate Democrats also want assurances that urban bus service would be improved and minority-owned businesses would share in the transportation spending. But he added that he still thinks approval is possible in a special session this month.

The governor issued an optimistic assessment of his prospects for addressing the Senate Democrats’ concerns and eventually passing the latest version of his plan, CT2030

“I want to thank the House and Senate Democratic caucuses for meeting today to discuss the future of Connecticut’s transportation system and consideration of our CT2030 proposal,” Lamont said. “These are decisions that prior elected officials put off for decades, and Connecticut can no longer afford to kick the can down the potholed road. 

“Over the coming days, I look forward to continuing these discussions so we can adopt a plan to finally fix our transportation system and get our state’s economy moving again, in short order.”

The administration says half or more of the revenue would come from out-of-state trucks, according to modeling done by the state Department of Transportation. 

When medium-sized trucks were included, the estimate was that 49% of the toll revenue would come from out of state vehicles. No updated modeling was available Tuesday, but officials said the percentage was likely to increase significantly with only tractor-trailers being charged.

Lamont has repeatedly scaled back his ambitions for a 10-year infrastructure spending plan, beginning with a comprehensive tolling plan in February that gained little support. 

CT 2030, the version he proposed in November, called for $21 billion in spending to be financed by a mix of tolls on all motor vehicles and low-cost federal loans. A trucks-only plan was projected to raise enough money to finance about $19.4 billion in transportation borrowing over a decade.

The Lamont administration said Tuesday that removing medium trucks from the tolling scheme would require shrinking spending from $19.399 billion to $19.162 billion, assuming legislators would accept the toll rates the administration proposed last month.

Under that proposal, tolls would vary by bridge, ranging from $6.40 to $12.80 for tractor trailers with an EZ Pass transponder and as much as $9.60 to $19.20 for others. Medium trucks would have paid as little as $1.25. 

The justification for higher tolls on heavier trucks is research that indicates damage to highways increases exponentially with the size of the vehicle, though the trucking industry disputes the findings.

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano and House Minority Leader Themis Klarides. mark Pazniokas / ctmirror.org

Republicans are opposed to any form of tolls or new revenue, despite a growing backlog of infrastructure maintenance and the projected of insolvency of the Special Transportation Fund (STF) in about five years. 

Financed by fuel taxes, fees and some motor vehicle taxes, the STF pays the debt service on borrowing for transportation projects and the operating costs of the Departments of Transportation and Motor Vehicles.

The financing of CT2030 relies on more than tolls. One element involves an increase in the sales tax receipts pledged to transportation.

Connecticut transfers $60 million in sales tax revenues from vehicle sales this fiscal year from the budget’s General Fund to the transportation program. That transfer, in turn, helps cover the debt service on hundreds of millions of dollars borrowed via bonding to invest in highway, bridge and rail upgrades.

The Democratic plan maintains a program already approved by the legislature to steadily increase that transfer, which would jump rapidly by 2022 to $272 million, and then grow more gradually until it reaches $424 million in 2030. 

Republicans question whether the General Assembly would keep that commitment in the event of a budget shortfall.

Investing $19 billion in transportation construction by 2030 also hinges on Connecticut’s economy remaining rosy until late 2024. Economists say the state and the nation are closer to their next downturn than to another boom cycle.

The Democratic proposal also involves tapping surplus dollars after the rainy day fund reaches it legal limit of 15% of operating expenses in late 2021.

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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12 Comments

  1. This report is incomplete. Multiple Democrat Senators from urban districts will only vote for tolls if the state promises to hire more minorities from their districts , increase subsidies and add more bus routes in their districts. Regardless, if you agree or disagree with those initiatives this is a clear quid pro quo and one that is not necessarily in the best interests of the MAJORITY of taxpayers who use cars and will eventually end up paying tolls at some future point. This is the same type of nonsense that was used in past contract negotiations, in reality they are rigging the vote like a banana republic.

  2. “Don’t believe it, it’s not true'” Please remember these are the same politicians, that manipulated and excluded what was included in the state budget, to bypass the spending cap. These are the same politicians, that intentionally tried to tax prepared foods in grocery stores, and then claimed it was a mistake. These are the the same politicians, that built loopholes to bypass the lockbox. These are the same politicians, that redirected and comingled non related fringe benefit costs in the Special Transportation Fund. These are the same politicians, with the help of union leaders overstated the discount rate of all pension funds to enable underfunding and false reporting of its reserves. These politicians cannot be trusted. They have proven that to be true.

    1. Don’t forget the Hartford bailout! What?! $400-$700 MILLION?!!!! I did not vote for that!

    2. The same politicians who have set up a $300 million educational slush fund without Freedom of Information Act transparency.
      The same politicians who have set up secret trials for juveniles.
      No trust, no TOLLS! It’s just that simple…

  3. Tolls on trucks-this will lead to a lawsuit as in RI. Can’t just toll 1 entity. This is Lamont’s back end run. What is it that these people don’t get? We do not want tolls. This here meeting is on the gold coast where more residents actually want improved rail.

    1. It will be ,”gee guys funny thing is we can’t just toll trucks. Who would have thought RI tried this an lost. So we will just have to add cars. Not our idea, blame those nasty Republicans in DC. “

  4. Honestly at this point. I’m tired of the tolls talk. If dems really wanted this done, it would be done already. All of us who are against this and republicans are going to attack you during this years reelection campaign anyways. There is no where to hide.

  5. This from the state that is bailing out faulty foundation homeowners at ourexpense instead of letting the courts decide. The previous governor would never want to offend the insurance companies!
    Connecticut wasted the ten years after 2008 trying to buy corporate love with almost two billion dollars of corporate welfare and playing games with the budget while pandering to unions.
    No amount of spin/mendacity can correct decades of mismanagement and corruption. Tolls will not do it either.
    Connecticut is a failed state.

  6. Get ready for increased costs to ship goods and the legal challenge that the state is not allowed to set tolls for only trucks. Then when truck only tolls are struck down all cars will be subject to tolls. In other words, just another disguised tax so we can pay high pensions without our representatives doing their job to stop the double pension dips, the overtime pension spikes or to require that new employees be on a DC rather than DB pension. Oh yes lets not forget that they’ve done nothing to reduce spending.

  7. You all really need to read the op-ed written by former state senator Len Suzio, published in the Record-Journal on Sunday. What an eye-opener! He gives a breakdown about how the Transportation Fund is funding things that don’t have anything to do with roads or bridges. This is why we are being told we “need” tolls. His last paragraph says it all. Here’s the link: https://www.myrecordjournal.com/Opinion/Guest-Columns/ColumnSuzio-rj-011220.html

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