Lamont: state residents would get 50-percent break on tolls

Hilary Gunn, of Greenwich, protests the idea of tolls on Connecticut roads outside the State Capitol after Gov. Ned Lamont delivered his budget address on Feb. 20, 2019. — AP Photo/Jessica Hill
Hilary Gunn, of Greenwich, protests the idea of tolls on Connecticut roads outside the State Capitol after Gov. Ned Lamont delivered his budget address on Feb. 20, 2019. — AP Photo/Jessica Hill

A highway tolling system that could raise $800 million a year would include 50-percent discounts for Connecticut residents, according to details in Gov. Ned Lamont’s budget announced Wednesday.

The new governor presented a potential system of 53 toll-collecting gantries across Interstates 84, 91, and 95, and Merritt and Wilbur Cross Parkways, for which construction could begin in 2022 at the earliest and cost $213 million to erect.

The 53 tolling locations is considerably lower than the 82 gantries presented in a Connecticut Department of Transportation (DOT) study last November.

Lamont also presented the General Assembly with an option to only charge tractor trailers, a plan he supported throughout his campaign. but such a system would not be sustainable for the Special Transportation Fund (STF), which supports the operations of both the DOT and the Department of Motor Vehicles, and acts as the biggest source of investment in the state’s bus, rail, and highway systems.

Instead, Lamont suggested a broader tolling system that would charge all highway users, even though he never supported such a plan while running for governor.

“I know this idea of tolling just sounds like one more damn tax I’m going to have to pay,” Lamont said in his budget speech. “I am not going to fix this state unless I fix our transportation system.”

Connecticut has 334 bridges rated in poor condition, with nearly a third built prior to 1950. On the New Haven Line, the busiest commuter railroad in the country, 76 percent of rail bridges were built before 1940.

“Our commute times are slowed by these aged structures, as our trains must decelerate when going over a bridge built for a bygone era,” reads Lamont’s budget proposal.

A strengthened STF, Lamont argued, would contribute to improvements in rail service.

Part of Lamont’s strategy to get to a toll system is to freeze the transfer rate of car sales tax revenue from the general fund to the transportation fund, going against a plan enacted by lawmakers last year to increase the contribution every year until 100 percent of the tax went to the transportation fund by 2023.

Lamont’s reasoning: even at 100 percent, the car sales tax would still result in an operating deficit for the transportation fund by fiscal year 2023. Also, he said increasing the transportation fund revenue from the tax will create a hole in the general fund. Instead, he proposed leaving the transfer rate at 8 percent.

“It’s time for those out-of-state drivers to foot the bill for fixing our roads and bridges,” he said, to applause.

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said he was disappointed in Lamont’s budget proposal, including tolls, which he opposes.

“Here’s the scary part: He’s never said how much he’s charging you per mile,” he told reporters after the speech. “You’re going to get a discount, but a discount off of what?”

State Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the transportation committee, said he is open to the idea of tolls, even if he’s not excited about the prospect.

“I’m not a big fan of tolls, but the question is can the state do without it, given the infrastructure situation we’re dealing with?” he said. “Our job is to make sure we provide education and facts and figures and take the emotion out of it.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said tolls will help Connecticut’s budgetary woes.

“I see no other responsible way to deal with our transportation infrastructure crisis than doing tolls,” he said. “Our gas tax is not projected to produce the revenues in the future that we will need ... So anyone who is serious about transportation, you have to be for tolls.”

Outside of the Capitol, a small group of protestors stood in below-freezing weather holding signs opposed to tolls.

“They have wasted our money time and again and until they get it under control, they should not be asking us for one more penny,” said Jen Ezzell of Lisbon, a town in New London County.

Pat Sasser, a founder of the grassroots group Say No to CT Tolls, said he’s lost faith in lawmakers to handle taxpayer money appropriately.

“When tractor trailers have to drive through 82 tolls or 50 tolls or whatever the number seems to be today, they’re not going to eat those costs,” he said. “The trucking companies are going to pass that cost down to the store, and the store is going to have to jack up their prices.”