Lamont gets pushback on tolls from Senate Democrats

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A key bloc of Connecticut state lawmakers, Senate Democrats, told Gov. Ned Lamont on Wednesday they like many of the projects in his new, 10-year transportation improvement plan, but they don’t like relying on tolls to partially pay for them.

Senate President Martin Looney of New Haven said the funding source needs to be something that’s “broadly palatable” to members of the Democratic-controlled General Assembly and the public.

“I think that if there is a will to find alternatives, that they can in fact be found,” Looney said. “There are other options out there — I won’t get into them in any detail now — that would not involve any additional tax increases.”

Much of Lamont’s $21.3 billion CT2030 transportation initiative relies on low-cost borrowing from the federal Build America Bureau. Such loans require a dedicated revenue stream to pay off the balance over time. Lamont’s plan identifies electronic tolls, which he calls “user fees,” on 14 bridge projects across the state as that revenue stream. The administration predicts 40% will be paid for by out-of-state drivers.

While that’s far fewer tolling gantries than the roughly 50 included in an earlier proposal, Looney said there’s still concern among lawmakers that needy Connecticut residents would be disproportionately harmed.

“If you look at it as a user fee, yes, it’s equitable,” Looney said. “But if you look at it in terms of impact per person, it can vary greatly.”

Lamont and his administration spent the summer retooling his transportation plan after the earlier proposal faltered during the regular legislative session. The first-term Democrat has argued that Connecticut needs a new revenue stream to fund transportation, considering the state’s main transportation account is facing insolvency in five years. He also contends improvements to the state’s roads, bridges, commuter rail lines, ports, buses, and airports are vital for Connecticut’s economic future.

Lamont called Wednesday’s meeting with the Senate Democrats “productive,” yet acknowledged the legislators have some “political issues” with the plan and that he’s asking them to “cast a tough vote.” Lamont said his administration plans to talk with the senators individually and explain how CT2030 will help their districts, urging critics to come forward now with any possible alternatives. Senate Republicans are scheduled to unveil a “no-tolls transportation investment plan” on Thursday.

It’s questionable whether there will be a vote on Lamont’s plan or a compromise before the General Assembly holds its next regular legislative session in February.

About a dozen anti-toll advocates waited outside Wednesday’s closed-door meeting. Patrick Sasser, who heads up the contingent, said he believes it’s too late to resurrect a transportation plan that includes tolls.

“I find it’s clear the people don’t have an appetite for this,” he said. “And I think the lawmakers recognize ... their elections next year can absolutely be impacted by this one topic.”