Lamont answers toll questions in Westport

Photo of Ken Dixon
Governor Ned Lamont

Governor Ned Lamont

Bonnie Biess / Getty Images for SiriusXM

WESTPORT — Before a generally supportive crowd in a school auditorium, Gov. Ned Lamont on Sunday was greeted warmly for his truck-only tolls proposal, aimed at supporting the state’s infrastructure improvements with a percentage of out-of-state dollars from largely interstate carriers.

During a late afternoon forum in Bedford Middle School, Lamont stressed the need to persuade the Democrat-dominated General Assembly to approve — over unified Republican opposition — his 10-year, $19 billion transit improvement plan, for a variety of economic reasons.

He said that a bill is finally being hammered out by legislative leaders, but declined to predict when the General Assembly might take up the long-simmering issue.

“These are all about good-paying jobs,” Lamont told a crowd of about 400 during a public forum held following an afternoon-long rally of construction workers outside on an unseasonably warm day. “Thousands and thousands of recession-proof, good-paying jobs. It really gets down to how do we pay for this. I think we generally agree how important it is to fix our transportation system”

Only a few anti-toll advocates seemed to have attended the event, including Joe Scully, president of the Motor Transportation Association of Connecticut, who stood in front of the school entrance with signs underscoring the more than $17,000 a year the average interstate truck pays in road-use fees.

The usually familiar anti-toll core, famous for getting “no tolls” banners into photos of the governor, were elsewhere, campaigning for anti-toll Republicans in a special state House election in Colchester.

Inside, the crowd, while generally pro-toll, included skeptics who questioned the need for bringing back a toll system that was discontinued more than 30 years ago.

After the 82-minute event, state Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, a member of the legislative Transportation Committee, and Rep. Laura Devlin, R-Fairfield, ranking member of the panel — both of whom oppose tolls — said that Westport is generally a pro-toll town, and they believe the forum was located there for that reason.

“Westport has always been a little bit different,” Lavielle said, stressing that Republicans haven’t been shown the latest incarnation of the planned legislation. In particular, Lavielle is concerned about whether lawmakers may not have control of future issues, including toll fee rates and the possible expansion to include cars.

“All we’ve heard is that the legislature would not,” Lavielle said.

“There were certainly a lot of things not shared and therefore there were some questions not asked,” Devlin said in an interview. “They are targeting tractor-trailer trucks, which I think are easy for people to visualize,” she said, stressing that it’s actually the weight of trucks that create danger for other motorists and wear down state highways. She noted the need for the state’s weigh stations to reopen.

Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport, who sat next to the governor onstage, said it’s important to make large trucks pay user fees.

Lamont said that the fuel taxes that fund transit improvement are decreasing, while the state’s aged bridges deteriorate further. “This is the best deal for taxpayers,” Lamont said.

Later, in an answer to a question from a toll skeptic, Lamont said he doesn’t want to use the state’s emergency reserves to pay for improvements. “I think we have a better way of paying for this,” he said. “That’s why we’re here today.”

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, noted that the current transportation crisis is costing taxpayers an average of $1,800 a year each in lost time and motor vehicle repairs. The state’s biggest pollution problem is transportation-related, he said, including cars idling in traffic.

Another panelist, veteran state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, another member of the Transportation Committee, said that the average age of highway bridges is 53.

“Bridges and roads built in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it could be argued that they are at the end of their useful life,” Steinberg said.

After a half-hour of statements from the seven-member panel, questions from the audience broke down around 50 percent from supporters and 50 percent from potential opponents. Throughout the afternoon, construction unions who would benefit from Lamont’s massive infrastructure plan held a rolling demonstration in the school parking lot, including signs promoting CT2030, the name of the governor’s plan. They were given signs that said “Better Infrastructure Economic Development.”

Transportation Commission Joseph Giulietti said that trucks-only tolls would bring in about 50 percent of the estimated $170 million or more from out-of-state vehicles. “This is truly a fair way of assessing the costs,” he said, stressing that every other state along the eastern seaboard tolls vehicles.

He said that Rhode Island’s defense of its trucks-only tolls gives state officials optimism. Connecticut’s relationship with New York State is also very good, with both states wanting the best possible service in the northeast corridor, Giulietti said.

Lamont said that the plan by Republicans to bond an additional $700 million a year in borrowing is too expensive and doesn’t make as much fiscal sense as truck tolls.

“We have more per-capita debt than any other state,” Lamont said. “This is the best alternative I’ve been able to find. The plan makes sense. The numbers add up.”

In response to a question on climate change, Lamont said that transportation improvements are part of the state’s program to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, including a big commitment to wind power.

The biggest applause of the event went to Haskell, who explained the nature of the state’s troubled fund for transportation improvements.

State Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, said that the current plan was the result of exempting fuel trucks and largely intrastate trucks. “This is really the big 18-wheeler trucks,” he said. “It’s not the smaller trucks.”

In this affluent town, which is in the heart of the commuter-train region, some questioners wanted to find out how the governor plans to speed up Metro-North service to New York City.

“We want to make sure that not only are we doing this for Fairfield County, but the entire state,” Duff said. Twitter: @KenDixonCT