Lamont slams brakes on tolls

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont delivers the State of the State during opening session at the State Capitol, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020, in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont delivers the State of the State during opening session at the State Capitol, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020, in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Jessica Hill / Associated Press

HARTFORD — After a year of prodding the Democratic majority in the General Assembly, Gov. Ned Lamont on Wednesday abruptly slammed the brakes on his plan for trucks-only highway tolls, admitting defeat and lambasting the legislature for its reticence.

But even as he hastily called a news conference in his Capitol office, Democratic leaders insisted that they could muster the support for a dozen tolls next week. Lamont said he was tired of their procrastination, and vowed that his plan to fix highways and railroad lines will go forward, with state taxpayers shouldering the full freight rather than gathering revenue from interstate trucks.

Speaker of the House Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, blamed the Senate Democratic caucus for the latest failure of the plan, and Senate leaders pointed fingers at threatened filibusters from House and Senate Republicans.

“I have a legislature that doesn’t want to make a choice at this time,” a terse, visibly frustrated Lamont told reporters after 4 p.m. “I’ve lost patience. I think it’s time to take a pause. If these guys aren’t willing to step up and vote, I’m going to solve this problem. Right now we’re going to go back to the way we’ve done it for years in this state. We both agree, we need $19 to $20 billion. I’m going to do that out of pocket. I hate to do it this way.”

Lamont said that the estimated $200 million in annual truck-toll revenue would be subtracted out of the long-term capital bonding legislation. “Is it the best way to fund it? No,” Lamont said. “But it’s a plausible way to get it going.”

At around the time that Lamont was venting to reporters in the Capitol, Democratic leaders said they still hold out hope for a vote on tolls next week. So it’s not entirely clear whether tolls are dead for the year, depending on what Lamont’s bonding alternative turns out to be.

Two of the biggest opponents of tolls, House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby and Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, told reporters that parking the toll legislation is politically expedient, especially at this point in the first month of the short, 13-week budget-adjustment session of the General Assembly.

“Nothing is dead in this building,” Fasano said, adding he’d be surprised if this issue was revived this session. “In 2021? I think you can bank on it.”

“I think and I’m hoping that the House Democrats understand what the Senate Democrats seem to have understood for a while and that’s that this is not a good vote and it’s a very risky vote for them because the people of Connecticut don’t like it and they do not want their hands stuck in their pocket one more time,” Klarides said.

Lamont proposed a 10-year, $19-billion transportation infrastructure program, but in an election year amid a vociferous anti-toll movement, support has been soft among Democrats who have a 90-61 majority in the House and a 22-14 edge in the Senate. Optimistically, Senate Democrats have planned for an 18-18 tie on the issue, with Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz expected to cast the winning vote for tolls.

Aresimowicz admitted that the governor’s toll plan has been in a slow-motion car wreck for a month.

“Over the past four weeks of trying to coordinate the scenario and date to pass a truck-only tolls transportation plan, it has become very clear that the political will to act was not there,” Aresimowicz said in a statement. “We were poised to act in the House tomorrow, but we need our colleagues in the Senate as well and apparently their ability to also act was tenuous.”

“In light of a potential unprecedented two-day, 30-hour-long debate, the Senate Democrats asked for five more days for our Senators to prepare and make necessary family arrangements,” said Senate President Martin Looney and Majority Leader Bob Duff in a statement released while Lamont had reporters in his office.

“We are still confident that Senate Democrats have the votes to pass a comprehensive transportation plan which includes 12 toll gantries on 18-wheeler trucks only,” Looney, D-New Haven and Duff, D-Norwalk. “We are prepared to hold a session next week to vote on a bill to make the necessary transportation investments for Connecticut’s economic development, residents, and businesses.”

Patrick Sasser of Stamford, a firefighter who is the informal leader of the No Tolls CT movement, was optimistic at the apparent death of the proposal. “I’m happy the governor will be moving away from tolls,” Sasser said. “I am hopeful that lawmakers from both sides of the aisle can come together to find a solution that works for the people of Connecticut.”

Asked by reporters about his opinion of the opposition to tolls, Lamont snapped: “It’s a grassroots movement to do nothing.”

Told about Lamont’s comment, Sasser, took a different view.

“The voice of the people has been heard,” he said. “It’s been clear from day one that the people of Connecticut were not in favor of tolls coming into the state, and part of that is that they just don’t trust another source of revenue,” Sasser said. “We’ve seen this before, where these other things were supposed to save Connecticut and we’ve been spiraling out of control. What people really want to see in Connecticut is reform…and that’s what this movement has been about.”

Dan Haar contributed to this report.