Modern tolls use overhead gantries like this one on the Massachusetts Turnpike (Arnold Reinhold / Creative Commons)
Modern tolls use overhead gantries like this one on the Massachusetts Turnpike (Arnold Reinhold / Creative Commons)
Gov. Ned Lamont announces a tentative deal on new bond package that clears the way for a vote on tolls.

Gov. Ned Lamont and the General Assembly took two significant steps late Monday toward ordering electronic tolls on large trucks that travel Connecticut’s highways.

Lamont announced a compromise deal on a new state bond package — a prerequisite for any tolls vote — that curtails borrowing for non-transportation projects, but not as sharply as the governor envisioned in the “debt diet” he unveiled last February.

Majority Democrats in the state Senate also released a first draft of the tolls bill and confirmed an informational hearing on the measure has been scheduled for Friday.

These conditions set the stage for a vote on tolls next week. And Lamont said he still expects lawmakers will act in special session on Monday or Tuesday next week, just before the regular 2020 session begins on Wednesday.

“We’ve got a good bond package,” the governor said. “We’ve reached agreement on where we’re going to go there.”

Lamont didn’t release all the details of the two-year bond plan, but said the centerpiece is $1.7 billion in general obligation [G.O.] bonding for the current fiscal year.

During the eight-year administration of Lamont’s predecessor, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, new G. O. bonding — financing for projects paid off with General Fund budget revenues — had averaged almost $2.1 billion per year.

“I thought we needed some discipline in terms of how much borrowing we do going forward,” Lamont said. “We’re going to be borrowing significantly less than they have, on average, over the last eight years.”

Details on bonding for the 2020-21 fiscal year were not released late Monday.

Lamont asked lawmakers last February to limit their new G.O. bonding to just over $1.4 billion this fiscal year, but many of his fellow Democrats in the legislature argued this was too lean.

Connecticut uses general obligation bonds to fund municipal school construction, capital projects at public colleges and universities, state building maintenance, open space and farmland preservation, and various, smaller community-based projects.

Transportation construction is paid for with a mix of federal grants and a second type of state bonding, Special Tax Obligation bonds. These STO bonds are repaid with resources from the budget’s Special Transportation Fund. The STF primarily draws revenues from fuel taxes and a portion of the state sales tax.

Lamont insists tolls are needed because the transportation fund has not kept pace with the maintenance needs of Connecticut’s aging, overcrowded highways, bridges and rail lines.

As part of the tentative bond agreement, about $100 million of the $1.7 billion in G.O. bonding approved for this fiscal year will be dedicated to transportation work.

Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford Monica Jorge

Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, co-chairman of the legislature’s Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, said both the Lamont administration and lawmakers compromised to find common ground on a two-year financing plan.

“It’s taken us a while to get here, and not from a lack of interest or a lack of effort,” Rojas said.

The East Hartford lawmaker did not disclose full details of the tentative agreement but confirmed the $1.7 billion general obligation bonding target for this fiscal year.

Rojas also praised Lamont for being flexible, adding that some of the  borrowing the governor allowed beyond his original proposal would enable crucial affordable housing programs to proceed.

Lamont has been at odds with Democrats over borrowing since he took office in January.

Connecticut’s bonded indebtedness per capita exceeds that of most other states, while payments on bonded debt consume 12% of this fiscal year’s General Fund. Supporters of the heavy borrowing of the Malloy administration argue that Connecticut — despite its great wealth — still has many poor communities and this financing advanced top priorities in education, health care and economic development that otherwise would have languished.

The governor would not sign off on a new bonding plan until legislators either adopted a tolls proposal, or otherwise showed how they planned to pay for necessary transportation upgrades in the coming years.

Many legislators who supported tolls countered by saying they would not vote for this new revenue source unless a bonding agreement had been reached.

The tentative deal also marks a big win for Connecticut’s cities and towns.

Three municipal aid programs, which distributed $150 million to communities last fiscal year, have hung in limbo as Lamont and legislators sparred over borrowing. Sources say these grants, including a crucial $60 million local road maintenance program that also pays for winter snow removal, are funded in each year of the tentative, two-year bond package.

Details of the tolls bill

The bill calls for tolls to be placed on large, commercial trucks with a rating of Class 8 or higher. This would exempt many Connecticut small businesses from paying the toll.

The bill authorizes the Transportation and Motor Vehicles departments to hire a toll operator. The DOT commissioner may establish rates provided they fall within a range of $6 to $13 per gantry. E-ZPass holders would be eligible for a discount.

Lamont estimates this would generate about $180 million per year in revenue for the budget’s Special Transportation Fund.

Toll rates could be increased by the DOT to reflect the general rate of inflation or the construction cost index, provided those increases are approved by the state’s Transportation Policy Council.

The bill also contains two provisions to guard against any effort by future legislatures to order tolls on smaller trucks or cars.

Until any bonds issued through mid-2022 for transportation projects are paid off — which likely would take into the late 2040s or early 2050s — “the state of Connecticut shall not charge tolls for any class of vehicle other than large commercial trucks,” the bill reads.

The measure also directs the state treasurer to write into the bond covenant — the contract between the state and the investors that purchase Connecticut’s transportation bonds — “that no public or special act of the General Assembly” approved between now and 2030 would attempt to alter this arrangement.

The bill orders 12 toll gantries, chiefly at the locations of aging bridges. All of these locations were identified months ago by the Lamont administration as priorities, primarily because they involve aging bridges.

  • I-84 at the Rochambeau Bridge between Newtown and Southbury.
  • I-84 in Waterbury near the “Mixmaster” junction with Route 8.
  • I-84 in West Hartford at the crossing over Berkshire Road.
  • I-91 in Hartford at the Charter Oak Bridge.
  • I-95 in Stamford over the MetroNorth rail line.
  • I-95 in Westport crossing over Route 33.
  • I-95 in West Haven over the MetroNorth line.
  • I-95 in East Lyme crossing over Route 161.
  • I-95 at the Gold Star Memorial Bridge over the Thames River, between New London and Groton.
  • I-395 in Plainfield crossing over the Moosup River.
  • I-684 in Greenwich overpassing the Byram River.
  • Route 8 in Waterbury south of the interchange with I-84.
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Keith M. PhaneufState Budget Reporter

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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15 Comments

  1. The Putnam bridge in Glastonbury is going to be very busy. It’s a very easy way around the Charter Oak toll. I can’t believe anyone is going to vote for even more revenue to be wasted. This is like approving a Total Wine credit card for an alcoholic.

    1. That’s an understatement. Try total gridlock and a safety issue. It’s the only way to get home for some of us. That bridge is a narrow two lane span 85 feet over water. Every single semi will easily divert to it to dodge the Charter Oak toll. All summer the DOT proactively diverts traffic to it via their electronic road signs so they are already primed. And yet no answer from CASSANO to my multiple emails on how he will protect his constituency and make sure they can get home at night from work.

  2. I understand toll plaza location plans are designed in part to maximize revenue, but… I’ll only address the areas I’m most familiar with.

    The 95 bridge over Rte 161 in E. Lyme is already a major dangerous bottleneck as is the Gold Star Bridge (at least southbound). I can only imagine the backups and accidents throughout New London Cty (and beyond), especially from late Spring through early Autumn.

    Not only will the tolls there be an issue for 95/395 in the E.Lyme/Waterford area, it will completely clog Routes 156 and 161. Rte 1 will be a disaster for miles. Just imagine when the politicians (or the Courts) determine the tolls will be for ALL vehicles.

  3. I wonder what loop hole will emerge from this that allows car tolling.
    $180 million in annual revenue; I wonder how good that projection really is.

  4. I will admit I’m against tolls. But I know they are coming no matter what. With that said, 1/2 hour on Google maps and you can easily figure out how to get around all of these tolls. Most will only add about 20 minutes total to your drive in both directions. 10 minutes each. It’s very poorly planned and I can see all the trucks on back roads more. I’m sure the state will make money but I’m sure it will be short of projections. It’s like the bag tax. People will change there habits.

  5. Tolls to leverage low interrest rate loans from the federal government! Again what if the feds say no to truck only tolls and you can Probley exspect the trucking company to file a law suite against Ct also.I think Lamonts putting the cart before the horse .

    1. I’m truly not trying to be partisan. As I don’t like either party. But what makes us think in these unfortunate partisan Times that the Trump admin will provide these loan to CT. Last time I checked, our delegates are not exactly nice to them.

  6. The $1.7 billion total bonding is a surprise.
    As you’ll recall from past articles in the Mirror, the Governor first wanted to authorize “only” $1 billion in bonding. But he was willing to add $100 million for transportation. The legislature was insisting on at least $200 million more.
    A jump to $1.7 billion is a major percentage increase. A number of legislators must have been successful at gaining approval for projects that interested them.

    1. Hi Philidor, it appears a number of your comments over the past month were automatically sorted into the “spam” folder (buried among a mountain of actual spam comments). We absolutely welcome your comments. Our deepest apologies for the error.

  7. This state is hopelessly locked into one party rule, and taxes will only continue to go up to pay for the unholy state union/Democrat alliance which gave us $120B in unfunded retirement liabilities. The door is open for tolling cars if/when the truck toll is found illegal by the feds. Democrats are eager to vote on now the trucks only tolls before we find out the answer to that question in Rhode Island. To wait makes the vote too close to the next election for these Profiles in Courage candidates. The diversion and pillaging of the transportation fund will continue unabated and our “leaders” will continue to get away with it. And yet we continue to vote for these fools. Go figure.

    The only vote of consequence left for some of us is to vote with our feet. This once great state is in for some dark days while other states who don’t treat taxpayers like ATM machines enjoy an influx of taxpayers. Please thank a Democrat today- their party has owned this mess for the last 10 years.

  8. I am a CT resident, and a vote for tolls is a vote against any state representative I can vote against in November. Not only is the truck only toll idea going to be found unconstitutional in RI (Ri is currently litigating a losing case on truck only tolls), so this plan will never work, and the brilliant state of CT will likely spend tens of millions re-litigating an issue that they won’t win, likely after they spend the money to put the illegal tolls up. Its so predictable it would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. NO TOLLS in CT, and as a CT resident I would LOVE to hear some candidates discussing CUTS to spending, not just throwing new money (bonds) at old problems! There is plenty of money( look at where our top 5 in the country gas tax goes- its supposed to go to fund transportation issues, but the state has robbed peter to pay paul and are now in trouble…), the issue is the priorities of the reps do not align with the needs of the people. As a democrat, if tolls pass, I will vote and root for republicans to take the legislature and governor’s office this November, the abuse of tax dollars has to stop. Don’t believe the lies of the state of CT!

    1. Hi Mark, we welcome your comments but please note that our guidelines require that comments be limited to 1,000 characters. We will not be able to approve comments that exceed that limit going forward.

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