Keith M. Phaneuf
Gov. Ned Lamont used his first budget Wednesday to lay the groundwork for the restoration of tolls to Connecticut highways.
Administration officials stressed they are just beginning a conversation with lawmakers about tolls. But the budget proposal also would cancel a crucial transfer of sales tax receipts to the Special Transportation Fund — a move the governor’s budget director acknowledged would create big problems for the transportation program absent another replacement source of revenue.
“As my co-equal branch of government, I am open to a real discussion with you, as well as Connecticut’s residents, about the state of our transportation system and what will be needed going forward – not only to make repairs, but to truly put Connecticut on the path to speedier transportation options,” Lamont told legislators in his budget address. “If the situation weren’t as dire as it is, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Lamont’s budget presentation includes projections that tolling trucks only — the option he supported on the campaign trail last fall — would raise between $45 million and $200 million per year. That falls hundreds of millions of dollars short of the funding transportation advocates and former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy insist are necessary both to maintain and upgrade the state’s aging, overcrowded infrastructure.
The second option Lamont offered — the one he says would most likely enable Connecticut to position itself for future economic growth — is to toll all vehicles. This would raise a projected $800 million per year.
Both projections assume toll revenues would not be available before 2023.
“Speeding up our rail service from Hartford to New Haven, to Stamford and New York City, with more frequent service to Waterbury and New London, with easier access to Bradley Airport and an upgraded Tweed Airport, … these transportation upgrades are the building blocks of our economic future,” Lamont said. “But we must start now.”
And even though Lamont’s budget doesn’t focus on a single option for tolling, the governor’s budget includes other recommendations that pave a path toward a broader tolling system.
Lamont recommended a “debt diet” plan that dramatically restricts general obligation bonding over the next two fiscal years. G.O. bonding, which is repaid with resources from the budget’s General Fund, is the principal tool used to finance municipal school construction and capital projects at state colleges and universities.
But in 2017, legislators dedicated a portion of that credit card, up to $250 million in G.O. bonding per year, that could be used to complement regular transportation borrowing. Connecticut regularly borrows $750 million to $800 million per year which is repays using fuel tax receipts from the budget’s Special Transportation Fund (STF).
Lamont’s budget takes that G.O. bonding option away from the transportation program.
It also would cancel previously approved transfers of sales tax receipts to the STF, about $91 million next fiscal year and $176 million in 2020-21.
“The governor’s proposed cap on transportation bonding will curtail programmed projects and exacerbate the deteriorating condition of our transportation systems,” said Donald Shubert, president of the Connecticut Construction Industry Association, who also praised Lamont for recommending tolls. “It will shut down projects that will address congestion and safety. The (existing) program was not keeping pace with Connecticut’s transportation needs.”
Budget Proposal Includes Reduced Transportation Bonding, Toll Proposal
HARTFORD, CT — The $800 million-to-$1 billion that Connecticut might see in toll revenue won’t be available until 2024, so what will Gov. Ned Lamont do until then to keep the highways safe and the trains running on time? Office of Policy and Management Secretary Melissa McCaw said the governor doesn’t believe in creating “leaky buckets” in one place in order to fill them in another. She said the new car sales tax revenue will remain at the current rate of 8 percent and they will maintain the 0.5 percent of general fund sales tax revenues devoted to the transportation fund.
Regardless, the reality is that the fund is projected to become insolvent by 2022, with operating deficits beginning in 2020.
“The governor wants to find a real sustainable path,” McCaw said. “Not only to maintain our current level of investment, but to make the investment to position us for growth.”
Over the past two years the General Assembly has transferred $250 million per year in general obligation bonds to the special transportation fund to save it from insolvency. The General Assembly and Executive Branch have, in the past, used transportation bond funds to balance the general budget. But that has not occurred for several years even though the past practice continues to be a talking point for partisans and critics of raising additional revenues for the fund.
Don Shubert, president of the Connecticut Construction Industries Association, Inc., believes limiting any allocation to the Special Transportation Fund would be a mistake. Lamont recently announced his desire to put the state on a “debt diet,” including no longer transferring $250 million a year to the Special Transportation Fund to support transportation projects.
Shubert says this is a mistake.
“The governor’s proposed cap on transportation bonding will curtail programmed projects and exacerbate the deteriorating condition of our transportation systems,” Shubert said. “It will shut down projects that will address congestion and safety. The planned program was not keeping pace with Connecticut’s transportation needs and now the DOT will be forced to apply the brakes — stacking up years and years of deferred maintenance. It is hard to imagine Connecticut moving in a positive direction when the it is effectively gutting the transportation program and crippling the economy.”
According to the Department of Transportation (DOT), more than 15 percent of the state’s bridges are currently and will remain in poor condition, increasing to 20 percent in poor condition by 2025. For pavement, about 10 percent of non-interstate roadways are in poor condition today. By 2025 that figure will reach 15 percent. If Lamont were to continue the “Let’s Go CT!” program that was started four years ago under former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, then he would need $2 billion per year just to keep up with state-of-good repair projects.Further, if the state fails to dedicate $2 billion annually to maintaining the current transportation system, it will need to delay or cancel about $4 billion to $4.5 billion in planned projects, according to a DOT document.
The bonding limits placed on the program by Lamont would, according to his own DOT, have significant impacts on the capital program, severely constricting the number of new projects that were scheduled to advance this year and in years ahead.
McCaw said the projects that have already been approved will move forward, but there’s no guarantee for any project that hasn’t received approval.
Lamont has further said he doesn’t want to increase the gas tax — “that’s a disastrous idea.”
The governor reversed himself over the weekend in calling for tolls on all motor vehicles, rather than truck-only tolls as he had said on the campaign trail. On an editorial published by Hearst Connecticut Media newspapers over the weekend, Lamont said truck-only tolls wouldn’t get Connecticut the revenue it needs to improve its infrastructure.
“The gasoline tax simply does not provide the reliable revenue we need, period,” Lamont wrote in the editorial. “Gasoline tax revenues have been flat for 10 years and are expected to begin declining as cars become more efficient, and as the sales of electric vehicles increase.”
Neil O’Leary and Rudy Marconi: Honest conversation about tolls should not be stalled
Chances are you’ve taken some form of transportation in the past week, to get to work or bring your kids to school; and chances are you’ve noticed the traffic, the crowded Metro-North train, and the potholes. We are a society on the move, and our ability to get around safely and easily is tied directly to our quality of life and economic growth on the municipal and state level. That is why we at the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and the Council of Small Towns, as representatives of the towns and cities of Connecticut, believe that we need to have an honest conversation about tolls.Connecticut’s infrastructure is in dire need of repair. The Connecticut Society of Civil Engineers gave our roads a D-plus, meaning they are in poor or fair condition. Our bridges fared only slightly better and merited a C-minus. Only our rail system, the busiest in the country, fared well, gaining a B-minus, but at the cost of slowdowns because the infrastructure is not there to make repairs quickly. Most of the network is over 55 years old, and our roads and rails need to be brought up to acceptable levels before a crisis happens, not after.Part of the problem is that funds have been pilfered away from transportation needs into the general fund, creating perennial shortfalls in transportation projects. Recently, more than 80 percent of voters in last November’s election ratified an amendment that would create a lockbox that would prevent fuel tax receipts from being siphoned away. But those receipts have decreased in light of new fuel-efficient and electric cars. Funding to repair this infrastructure must come from somewhere, and tolling is one of the possible solutions being floated around.Gov. Ned Lamont was unwavering during his campaign that he would look into tolls, most likely in the form of trucks-only plan similar to one adopted in Rhode Island. But in December of last year, the governor’s transportation committee recommended full tolling, which they estimate would bring in nearly a billion dollars to renovate our infrastructure. His presentation of both plans to lawmakers and citizens alike only increases the necessity of serious conversation about our infrastructure needs.
Connecticut drivers are certainly not unfamiliar with tolling; every time we cross into New York or Massachusetts — or just about any state from Maine to Maryland — we pay tolls and support their infrastructure, but residents in those states are essentially getting a free meal when they cross into Connecticut. Unlike the toll booths that went away in the early ’80s, Automated Electronic Tolls don’t require slowdowns, and may incentivize a resurgence of carpooling efforts.
Combine with that the fact that Metro-North’s chronic issues in infrastructure work that have caused severe delays and that nearly every major highway exchange in Connecticut made the American Transportation Research Institute’s “Top Bottlenecks,” and you will understand the need to modernize and repair our crumbling infrastructure.
There are so many reasons why Connecticut is an attractive place to live and do business, but the argument falls apart for prospective residents and businesses with visions of waiting for a delayed train or in a sea of red lights with traffic at a standstill before you.
Gov. Lamont said that he “cannot fix this economy without fixing our transportation system and bringing it to the 21st century.” We at CCM and COST appreciate the governor’s leadership and honesty on this issue, and he’s right that our economy is tightly wound up with our infrastructure. This is a serious conversation that we need to have for the safety of our residents and the economic growth of our municipalities, state and key businesses.
Neil O’Leary is mayor of Waterbury and president of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. Rudy Marconi is first selectman of Ridgefield, president of the Council of Small Towns and a CCM board member.
DOT to repave ‘deteriorated’ Route 8 surface in Seymour
SEYMOUR - The state Department of Transportation is planning a pavement surface repair operation on northbound Route 8 near Exit 22.
Work crews will micro-mill the deteriorated asphalt surface to remove loose material and to provide a stable, smooth travel surface for the remainder of the winter months.
This section of roadway will be repaved with new hot-mix bituminous asphalt during the upcoming 2019 construction season.
This project is scheduled to take place beginning on at 8 p.m. Thursday until 5 a.m. Friday and on Friday from 9 p.m., until 6 a.m. Saturday.
Impact attenuators, signing patterns, and cones will be utilized to guide motorists through the work zone and State Police will be utilized for traffic control.
According to DOT data, about 25,000 vehicles a pass through this section of northbound Route 8 each day.