Members of the Waterbury Line Caucus call for mass transit investments in the Naugatuck Valley. mark Pazniokas / ctmirror.org
Members of the Waterbury Line Caucus call for mass transit investments in the Naugatuck Valley. mark Pazniokas / ctmirror.org

A bipartisan group of lawmakers, many of whom helped block Gov. Ned Lamont’s plan to increase funding for transportation with truck tolls, called on the governor and legislature Monday to deliver millions of dollars in improvements to the Waterbury Line of Metro North.

“We’re done talking. We want action,” said House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby. “The state of Connecticut needs this, not just the region that we’re from. It needs it, because it will push the state forward.”

At a press conference and then at a public hearing before the legislature’s Transportation Committee, legislators and municipal officials made a case for investing in mass transit in the corridor running from Bridgeport to Waterbury and beyond.

“We’re done talking. We want action. The state of Connecticut needs this, not just the region that we’re from. It needs it, because it will push the state forward.”

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides

“It was an impressive showing, no doubt,” Rep. Roland J. Lemar, D-New Haven, the committee co-chair, told the last of the legislative witnesses. “We all believe that investments in transportation pay off.” 

Then he smiled and added that reaching a consensus on investment is easy, while agreeing on how to finance those investments is not.

“It’s frustrating that folks have trouble connecting those two things,” Lemar said.

Every lawmaker who testified at the public hearing in support of Naugatuck Valley transportation investments was opposed to tolls, and no one suggested sources of new revenue that could subsidize an expansion of rail service through their districts. 

The lawmakers want the state to invest $150 million in rail cars and a maintenance facility.

Max Reiss, the communications director for the governor, said Lamont is in complete agreement with the lawmakers on the potential for improved rail service and transit-oriented development to spur economic growth around six stations on the 27-mile Waterbury Line.

“No governor in Connecticut history has proposed the kind of infrastructure improvements for the Waterbury Line that were proposed by Gov. Lamont,” Reiss said.

But, as Reiss noted, the governor’s proposed transportation investments for the Naugatuck Valley came with a call for new revenue, originally tolls on all motor vehicles and, more recently, only on tractor trailers at a dozen highway bridges.

“We all believe that investments in transportation pay off.”

Rep. Roland J. Lemar, D-New Haven

CT2030, the governor’s transportation infrastructure plan, called for more than $19 billion in improvements that the administration says are necessary over the next decade to return roads and bridges to a state of good repair and shorten car and rail commute times.

Last week, the governor effectively walked away from truck tolls after Senate Democrats postponed a tentative vote. With House and Senate Democrats refusing to go first on a tolls vote, Lamont said he was moving on to alternatives. A short-term fix is likely to be reserving at least $200 million in general-obligation borrowing for transportation, a step that will squeeze funds for other capital projects.

Gov. Ned Lamont called a press conference last week to announce the end of his bid to get tolls legislation passed this legislative session, declaring “I have lost patience.” mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org
Gov. Ned Lamont called a press conference last week to announce the end of his bid to get tolls legislation passed this legislative session, declaring “I have lost patience.” mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

Truck tolls would not have contributed directly to rail improvements: The plan abandoned last week called for toll gantries on a dozen highway bridges, with the revenue restricted to paying for debt service on repairs to those structures. But new funding for bridges would ease demands on the state’s underfunded Special Transportation Fund, which uses taxes on fuel and  motor vehicles, as well as various transportation-related fees, to pay for other transportation operating and capital costs.

Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury, said at the press conference that the Waterbury Line is deserving of a greater share of existing transportation investments.

“There has been far too long that this rail has not be tended to,” Hartley said. “And so, that’s an issue of parity.”

With or without new revenue, the state should be pursuing low-cost financing from the federal Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program, which has been making railroad infrastructure loans since 2002, Hartley said. 

“No caucus has had a bill they were able to get through. If we all agree transportation is a problem, we all should share in the failure of that.”

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter

Railroad operators have shied away from the program, citing upfront applications costs and uncertain timelines for approval, according to a report published by the Congressional Research Service in January 2018. Of the 37 loans made, two-thirds were executed prior to 2008, and only four have been approved since 2012. 

Lemar, a mass-transit advocate who often takes the train from New Haven to Hartford, said it was encouraging to hear so many legislators extolling the virtue of transit-oriented development.

Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess III of Naugatuck said developers have identified nearly 240 acres of developable land within a half-mile of the six stations on the Waterbury Line. With the appropriate transit investments, the region could become an economic engine, he said.

The state already has invested $90 million in a positive control safety system on the line, he said.

“Your investment is totally wasted if we don’t have the trains. We can’t make it happen,” Hess said. “We can’t have TOD, we can’t have what everyone else has with the train cars.”

Collectively, Democrats and Republicans have proposed five transportation financing plans, though none has come to floor vote in either the House or Senate.  Lamont originally proposed a comprehensive tolls system for cars and trucks that could have raised as much as $800 million annually. It was downsized twice, ending with a trucks-only plan raising about $175 million.

The GOP has declined to support any plans with tolls — or any other form of new revenue. 

Republicans first proposed setting aside a major portion of the state’s borrowing for transportation. Then they suggested using about $1.6 billion of the state’s $2.5 billion budget reserve to pay down pension debt, allowing the state to shift money needed for annual pension contributions to transportation.

“No caucus has had a bill they were able to get through,” said House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford. “If we all agree transportation is a problem, we all should share in the failure of that.”

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.

Join the Conversation

8 Comments

  1. I am against tolls cause I know it would get lost and would not force our government to economize in any way but these lawmakers asking for money is ironic. This line has less than 1000 riders according to jim cameron. What is the proper investment for something less than 1% of the population uses. Transportation funds need to go to roads. You know those things 95% of taxpayers ues

    1. So by your logic, if you don’t have school-age children in school, why should you have to pay taxes that will be utilized to fund schools? Or since you don’t utilize Fastrak, why should your tax dollars help to subsidize the program? CT needs to fund improvements to the aging infrastructure. The days of people commuting individually via auto are coming to an end. I-84 through Hartford is reaching the end of its’ expected life span and if you think the traffic coming into Hartford is bad now, just wait!

      1. Hello Ella,
        Can you please cite, and provide the evidence that commuting individually by automobile is coming to an end? Thanks!

      2. Help Us did not say that Ella… I took what he said to mean we should be investing in the area’s that will make the biggest impact first.
        Putting millions into something that affects only 1000 people doesn’t sound like a top priority!

      3. All I am getting at is in this time of permanent fiscal crisis as we are told we are in. We have to prioritize state spending. So yes bridge and roads that are used by millions including bus public transportation is more prudent than on train service for under 1000. Also. The days of cars are not near over. If you say climate change. I say telsaa or riviran. Electric care with no carbon footprint will win over public transportation with maybe exception to NYC or Boston. Most of us enjoy out freedom to move around at our will and not subject to Times and place dictated by government

      4. Ella, I think what Help is saying is that the money is spent disproportionately on a very small percentage of the commuting public. 1000 riders in cars would zoom by in a couple of minutes. The Hartford to Springfield train cost roughly $800,000 per daily rider to build and is subsidized over $50 per ticket. When is CT going to spend that much for me to get to work?

  2. “But new funding for bridges would ease demands on the state’s underfunded Special Transportation Fund, which uses taxes on fuel and motor vehicles, as well as various transportation-related fees, to pay for other transportation operating and capital costs.”
    Why did it take so long, and wait did they wait until after the “Toll Bill” was denied, to reveal what would happen to existing STF Revenue Sources? I’m sorry, both the legislators, and media should have openky revealed to the voting public. If tolls were passed, all existing STF Revenue Sources would go to rail and other alternate projects and programs. No one, openly stated this, but we all knew! What happened to “Open Govenrment” in the State of Connecticut.

  3. Of course those legislators interested in Naugatuck Valley rail improvements opposed all of Lamont’s toll proposals. They repeatedly said a new revenue source is not needed and Ct citizens don’t want the state’s hands in their wallets once again. They and others made alternative funding proposals to Lamont’s ever changing and failed toll proposals. All of this was stated again & again. It’s no secret. What part of that isn’t clear?

    Matt Ritter is wrong when he claimed “If we all agree transportation is a problem, we all should share in the failure of that.” No, Ritter, you, Lamont, Joe A-Z, Looney, Lemar, Leone, Bergstein, Osten, Haskell, Abrams, Steinberg, Reyes, Cook, Horn, Rojas, Ziogas, Winkler, Reiss, and other toll advocates are the ones who failed. Man up and shoulder responsibility for that failed bad idea.

Leave a comment