Democrats push highway tolls over first hurdle

In a stark contrast between the two political parties, majority Democrats on a key committee Wednesday hammered through three toll-related bills.

The trio of party-line votes of the Transportation Committee started at about 4:45 and finished by 5:15, after about three hours of partisan debate. The related bills will give legislative leaders and Gov. Ned Lamont a variety of tolling options for final talks heading toward the early June adjournment date.

“These are ideas and thoughts we want to put on the table,” said Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, co-chairman of the committee, stressing the need for a steady funding source for infrastructure improvements. “Wherever you are in the state of Connecticut you’re likely to go over a bridge that’s rated below-average.”

“This is only the starting point of budget negotiations,” said Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, the other co-chairman of the committee, stressing that exact details of the tolling plan, which likely could not go into effect until around 2022, might not be finalized until federal officials review an overall plan.

After the vote, Lamont said that tolls are better for the state’s fiscal health.

“Borrowing billions of dollars while saddling our kids and grandkids with decades of debt isn’t a path forward,” Lamont said in a statement. “A reliable, sustainable revenue source — 40 percent of which will be paid for by people who don’t even live here — is necessary to make the infrastructure investment we need to get our state growing again.”

The general plan is to install electronic equipment along Interstates-91, 95 and 84, as well as the Merritt and Wilbur Cross parkways, at a cost to drivers of up to 6 cents per mile, to generate up to $1 billion annually. “I believe the entire Legislature should weigh in on this,” Leone said, stressing his interest in getting all bills out of the committee.

The sometimes contentious, afternoon-long meeting included surprise visits from the two top GOP leaders, who argued with the two Democratic co-chairmen over the kind of options that Republicans have offered on infrastructure investments.

“There’s not enough revenue for us to pay for all the transportation projects,” said Leone, who riled up Republicans when he complained that the GOP hadn’t offered alternative ways to fund the state’s transportation needs.

That prompted both House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, and Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven to walk into the first-floor meeting room in the Legislative Office Building and request rare opportunities to address the panel.

“The reality is the Democrats are in the majority in this building,” Klarides said. “I understand this is an issue that people feel strongly about in both directions. And I know we have gotten heated and will continue to get heated in regards to what we think is right for this state.”

Both lawmakers pointed out the Republicans’ alternative proposals that include $2 billion in transit investments, and pointed out that their proposals date back to 2017, when a Republican budget that won enough Democratic votes for passage, was successfully vetoed by then-Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

Even some Democrats on the committee were not pleased with the form of the bills, which do not include language supported by Lamont that would give breaks to low-income residents and commuters. Democrats criticized a section that would take final action out of the hands of the General Assembly.

Sen. Derek Slap, D-West Hartford, said lawmakers owe it to state residents to vote on the final form the toll system might take.

“It’s a real concern to the people of the state of Connecticut,” said Rep. Laura Devlin, R-Fairfield, ranking member of the committee, citing a petition with 86,000 signatures of people opposed to the re-institution of highway tolls 33 years after the state’s last toll plaza was taken down.

But Democrats, with a hefty 23-13 majority, easily flexed their muscle.

“This is an economic imperative for the state of Connecticut,” said Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport. “We’re putting the entire state’s economy at risk.”

“State government in my opinion has played a shell game with the tax money of hard-working citizens,” countered Rep. Brenda Kupchick, R-Fairfield.

The Transportation Committee acted the day after a federal judge in Rhode Island ordered an appeal of that state’s trucks-only highway toll program to start at a lower court.

While lawmakers on the 36-member committee were engaged in their respective closed-door caucuses, Lamont earlier Wednesday told the annual statewide gather of hundreds of members of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association that he’s nearly forced to push for electronic tolls.

He asked for help from the business community to push legislation through the General Assembly.

“I’ve got to have an honest conversation with people,” Lamont said during a half-hour appearance in the Legislative Office Building. “I can’t find a credible alternative to make the investments we need going forward. I need the business community to step up.”

Lamont said during recent discussions with Standard & Poor’s, which led to the upgrade this week in the state’s bond rating, the issue of paying for infrastructure improvements was paramount. “We need a new independent source of revenue that’s reliable and predictable that goes to transportation,” Lamont said.

Borrowing further for infrastructure projects, he said, would be “disastrous” financially.

During the closed-door caucuses, four anti-toll activists stood in front of the first-floor meeting room where Democrats were reviewing legislation. Hilary Gunn, of Greenwich, clad in a knit “No Tolls” hat, said her third journey to the State Capitol this year would be worth it if the legislation were turned down by lawmakers.

“I strongly believe we’re already paying for our roads,” Gunn said in an interview, who believes the state’s revenue stream has enough to pay for road, highway and trail improvements.

While during last fall’s election campaign Lamont said he would propose trucks-only tolls to bring in an estimated $200 million a year in new revenue, upon taking office he expanded the proposal to include all vehicles, stressing that with 40 percent of the state’s highway traffic coming from out-of-state.