Paying for roads, rail and bridges; Connecticut still needs money for fixes
HARTFORD — The General Assembly last week avoided looming rail and bus fare hikes, but lawmakers left billions in potential new revenue on the table — and failed to find a long-term fix for Connecticut’s congested roads and crumbling bridges. The legislature diverted millions of dollars in tax revenue from car sales to the Special Transportation Fund and agreed to use discretionary bonding to keep the fund solvent.
That was enough to avoid Metro-North and bus fare increases and branch service reductions, and restore $4.3 billion in road, rail and bridge projects postponed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy due to a lack of money.
But billions of dollars in potential future revenue from electronic highway tolls and legalizing marijuana - weed sales begin this summer in neighboring Massachusetts - was pushed aside, along with plans to widen I-95 and other highways to relieve congestion that many say is choking economic development.
"The car sales tax revenue stabilized the STF for the time being," said Chris Donnelly, a spokesman for Move CT Forward, a coalition of construction industries and union workers. n"It is a great first step that will get projects back up and running, as well as avoid the looming transit fare increases and service cuts," Donnelly said. "But we recognize that a long-term solution will be needed," Donnelly added. "The ways and means to create that solution, however, will have to be part of a larger discussion."
Lumps and tolls
State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, and co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Transportation Committee, said lawmakers did what they could in an election year — considering the Senate is tied 18-18 between Democrats and Republicans.
"They didn’t have enough commitment to put out much else," Boucher said of the Democratic leadership, which pushed hard to enact tolls and obtain the $1 billion in estimated yearly revenue.
Republicans stood firmly against tolls and other revenue enhancements — taxes to some — backed by the majority Democrats and Malloy.
"The 7 cent gas tax increase and $3 tax on tires; no one wanted it," Boucher said, referring to revenue proposals.
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, acknowledged he wanted tolls, but the votes were not there. "I took my lumps with tolls; that was my main issue," Aresimowicz said. "I said I wanted an up or down vote, but there are times we need work with our caucus."
A bill directing the state Department of Transportation to develop a tolling plan and bring it back to the legislature within two years passed committees but was not brought up for a vote in the House or Sen Various bills to legalize marijuana and tap the over $100 million in projected yearly revenue also passed committee review, but were not put up for a floor vote.
The legislature did agree to divert taxes from new car sales to the STF, beginning July 1, the start of the new fiscal year.
Under the plan, 8 percent of the car tax revenue will go to the STF in 2019. By 2023, 100 percent of the revenue will go into the STF, a dedicated fund reserved for transportation projects such as highways, rail and bridge construction and improvement.
Chris McClure, a spokesman for the state Office of Policy and Management, could not provide an estimate of how much money would pour into the STF from the diversion.
"We simply haven’t had enough time to review everything and get all we need in terms of details," McClure said.
"It would be premature of us to speculate regarding the impact of specific provisions or the result of policy changes until staff have all of the information and have finished their review and assessment," McClure said.
The Democratic majority also adopted a Republican plan to redirect $200 million a year in discretionary borrowing for transportation projects.
"They are changing the bond allocations, something we have been pushing for years," Boucher said. "There is at least $200 million a year in discretionary bonding. There are ways of reallocating projects, some are long term."
James Cameron, founder of the Commuter Action Council and a Hearst Connecticut media columnist, said the car tax diversion is good news.
"I'm happy that the legislature heeded the call of rail and road commuters and finally put some funding into the STF," Cameron said. "But diverting a sales tax and issuing more general obligation bonds doesn't answer the long-term need for more diverse funding sources."
Cameron noted Connecticut motorists still get a "free ride" in the absence of tolls, while rail commuters pay among the highest fares in the U.S.
"Eventually, the wisdom of tolls or a vehicle miles tax will prevail, though not in this election year when the pols would seem to prefer playing a ‘shell game’ with money rather than face reality," Cameron said.State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, said the budget adjustments offer a reasonable solution to transportation needs."This will fully fund the STF and result in surpluses," Formica said. "This allows us to fully fund transportation projects and rail and bus service.” Don Shubert, President of the Connecticut Construction Industries Association, praised the budget adjustments as a first step."This legislative action will help get transportation improvement projects back up and running immediately,’ Shubert said. "This is a great and sorely needed first step."
The next battle over transportation funding will come this fall when voters decide on a constitutional amendment ballot question that seeks to place a "lock box" on STF funds.
Supporters say the lock box will ensure the money is not diverted to other uses. Opponents argue the language allows lawmakers to divert the money under certain conditions and say supporters will use the lock box to falsely assure voters that toll money would be used on for transportation.
“That is why they want the lock box language — so they can say, ‘it’s okay, your safe.’ But you are not safe," said House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby. Asked if a “No” vote on the lock box is also a vote against tolls, Klarides said “Absolutely.”
Donnelly said the lock box vote will help show what the public wants lawmakers to do regarding a long term fix for transportation and funding sources.
"The next step in the Connecticut transportation discussion is the vote on the constitutional lock box," Donnelly said. "We are looking forward to gauging the political and public sentiment to improving mobility in the state after that."
Getting There: Tolling debate increases commuter animosity
The recent debate over tolling our highways should remind us of just how divided the state has become. It’s not red vs. blue and not even just upstate vs. downstate. The real divide is between those who commute by car vs. those who take mass transit.
I’ve written for years about how Metro-North riders pay the highest commuter rail fares in the U.S., and those fares will only keep rising. Most rail riders have little choice, especially if headed to New York City. What are they going to do — drive?
Yet, every time the fares go up — increasing 55 percent since 2002 — ridership rises as well. Why? Because conditions on the highways keep getting worse.
But those who choose to drive, or must because there’s no viable mass transit option, seem to literally hate rail commuters. I think it’s jealousy. During the tolls debate, the venom was dripping and one Tweet in particular hit home.
“Just because your commute (by train) is so expensive doesn’t mean mine (by car) should be too (because of tolling),” the post read.
The driver clearly missed the point. We aren’t looking for tolls to subsidize rail fares. It’s just to get motorists to pay for the upkeep of their roads and bridges before we have another Mianus River Bridge collapse, which we will.
But it gets worse.
The anti-toll forces now sound like Howard Beale, the deranged newsman from the movie “Network” who was “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.” Doubtless, much of this is directed at Gov. Dannel Malloy who has the lowest popularity rating in the history of polling. Sure, the economy of our state is in bad shape. But Malloy didn’t create this economic mess. He just inherited it and mishandled it.
And it will get far worse, no matter who succeeds Malloy. The solutions will be few and all will be painful. Forestalling tolls and gasoline taxes won’t stop the bridges from rotting.
But this opposition to tolls or modest gasoline tax increases to pay for roads has now been taken to a maniacal pitch, predicting “everyone is leaving the state,” because conditions are so bad. That’s fine with me.
I recently ran into a young man unloading a bunch of items at our town dump. “My parents are moving,” he told me. “Everyone is leaving Connecticut!” he exclaimed. “Really?” I asked.
“It’s all Malloy’s fault,” he said, sounding like a Pied Piper, leading a caravan down Interstate 95 to some promised land.
I asked him one question: “Did your parents sell their house?” “Sure,” he said. “And at a profit over what they paid for it.”
“Well,” I said, “I guess not everyone is leaving. Your folks are moving out and someone else is moving in.” Someone who wants to live here.
To those who hate living in Connecticut so much, I extend an invitation: Please leave. Enjoy your low-tax destination. And don’t forget to pay those highway tolls as you drive down I-95 through New York, New Jersey and elsewhere.
But enough already with the “I hate Connecticut” mantra. Some of us actually like living here. And losing the “haters” will only mean fewer cars on our roadways.
W.I. Clark Hosts Annual Paving Seminar
The W.I. Clark Company recently hosted its annual paving seminar at its headquarters in Wallingford, Conn. As always, this is an all-day event that is fully catered and hosted by the W.I. Clark Company.
The seminar allowed local contractors and municipalities to learn about the newest paving products on the market, including new features, techniques, operation standards and safety protocol. Representatives from various manufactures attend this event each year to provide all of their attendees with hands on training and in depth product support on the machines.New this year, W.I. Clark kicked off its “Milling for a Cure,” which featured its custom pink Wirtgen W 50 Ri milling machine. This machine will be available for rent all season, and a portion of the proceeds will be donated to the Susan G. Komen foundation of New England, which funds research and preventative care for breast cancer.
The W.I. Clark company also has been appointed the FUCHS distributor, serving Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Dutchess, Orange, Rockland, Putnam, Sullivan, Ulster and Westchester counties within New York. With three locations throughout the state of Connecticut, W.I. Clark also is the full-service dealer of John Deere, Hitachi, Wirtgen, Hamm, Vogele, Kleemann, Indeco, Eager Beaver, Rosco and LeeBoy.