The auction is open. Gov. Ned Lamont has signaled that he will pay any price and impose any burden on the public to get tolls placed on Connecticut’s major highways. The Greenwich Democrat has already told the legislature’s House Democrats, as part of his pitch for support, that he will raise money for their campaigns, and he’ll get business people to help, too.
It was a raw proposition that made some Democrats uneasy.
But the governor took time from purchasing votes to announce his summer reading challenge. It’s intended for students, but you should join in the spirit of a good idea by reading Lamont’s working draft of his tolls bill. It is a work in progress, so the version I read may have changed by the time this column is published.
The underpinnings of the proposal are unlikely to change, though, because Lamont needs to raise a lot of money, and there are limited ways to do that. There will be no more than 50 gantries — overhead tolls — on I-84, I-91, I-95 and Route 15. Depending on the time of day, the charge per mile will be 3.5 cents or 4.4 cents. Lamont’s proposal contains a list of priority transportation projects. They include major undertakings in Hartford, Waterbury, Danbury and New London. Funds collected from tolls have to be used on roads — they cannot be diverted to mass transportation projects. But those jobs are funded in other ways. The priority train projects include track improvements on the New Haven line and its branches in Fairfield County. There will also be new train cars for passengers. One of the surprises on the list is a second train station for Bridgeport. It’s known as the Barnum station, named after Bridgeport’s P.T. Barnum, the circus showman and Connecticut politician who believed there was a sucker born every minute. The Barnum station was announced five years ago by then-Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. It seemed intended to give then-Mayor Bill Finch a boost in his 2015 re-election campaign. It did not. Finch lost and the proposal disappeared. Five years ago, according to the Connecticut Post, the state Department of Transportation seemed surprised at the Barnum station announcement. The estimated cost of the Barnum station, according to the 2018 Post report, has reached $300 million. Bridgeport legislators and other local officials appear enamored of the idea, regardless of the cost. The Bridgeport delegation to the legislature is a large one, and Lamont needs their votes. What’s $300 million when you your shopping list for the initial projects is over $20 billion, according to DOT estimates? No one at DOT, I understand, expects the Barnum station will ever be built. It serves two contrary purposes: It pleases local officials and alienates the wider public. The public may feel shut out of this process, but it is not. The National Environmental Policy Act provides a place for you. Before a single toll gantry can be constructed, studies on the impact of tolls must be performed. The government must determine and weigh what tolls will do to the people who drive on the highways and the towns where the tolls will be placed. Experts must examine the effects of tolls on our continuing struggle with economic justice. Lamont’s proposal includes discounts for low-income drivers whose incomes are not more than 125 percent of the poverty rate. This year in Connecticut, that’s $26,663 in a household of three people. That leaves out a lot of working people who make daily use of the state’s major highways. They’ll have to pay because Lamont’s proposal gives the Department of Motor Vehicles the power to revoke motor vehicle registrations if they do not. Towns and cities ought to start preparing to show what tolls might mean for local roads, residents and businesses. Federal officials want to know what impact tolls will have on local roads. Some drivers will avoid highways with tolls and instead use local roads to reach their destinations. This can cause increased congestion in a community and diminish air quality.The federal government anticipated these issues, and under NEPA, it provides local residents and their leaders with a meaningful voice. Your opinions on tolls many have lost their influence on Lamont since he broke his trucks-only campaign vow, but you are not powerless.
Gov. Ned Lamont wants a vote on tolls by next week, the House speaker says that’s ‘unrealistic’
Despite strong pushback from veteran legislators, Gov. Ned Lamont was advocating Thursday for a vote on highway tolls before the end of the regular session next week.
With little time remaining and hundreds of bills hanging in the balance, some legislators say it is highly impractical to expect a long, extended debate about tolls before the session ends at midnight Wednesday.
House Republican leader Themis Klarides of Derby said an impassioned debate on tolls would essentially bring all other legislation to a screeching halt and prevent many bills from passing.
“Right now it is too late in the game with a budget that needs to be done and many other bills that need to be done to say we’re going to stop the presses, which will be a 24-to-48-hour debate, which means everything will be shut down because that’s how important it is,” she told reporters.
Klarides said she agrees with state Sen. Carlo Leone, a Stamford Democrat who co-chairs the transportation committee and oversaw the tolls debate, that time is running short.
Regarding Lamont, Klarides said, “I just think it’s very unrealistic of him, and it shows his lack of understanding how this process works, still in June.”
Lamont’s senior adviser, Colleen Flanagan Johnson, said he is keenly aware of how things work at the Capitol.
"The governor knows exactly how this process works, including the fact that the Republicans’ proposed budget is a blank sheet of paper, and their proposal on transportation infrastructure investment amounts to a massive loan that the state can’t afford, paid for Connecticut residents at 100 percent,'' she said. “When the Republicans put forth an actionable, realistic and responsible transportation or budget plan, the governor remains ready, willing and able to work with them on those critical issues. Until then, he’ll continue to work with Democratic leaders on an honest, balanced and on-time budget and a transportation proposal that will fundamentally alter Connecticut’s economy for decades to come.”
House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said Lamont is well aware of the sometimes slow-moving and deliberative process of the legislature, which often leads to long debates on controversial issues.
“It would take a lot of time. No one can deny that,” Ritter told reporters. “Members would have to struggle with what else would not go if that were to be put up quickly” for a vote in the House.
“I would say it would be very difficult to pull off a vote on tolls before we adjourn,” said House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin. “Not to say ... that somehow we reach that sweet spot and it moves quickly, but it’s highly unlikely.
“[Lamont] would like us to move forward as soon as possible, but I just don’t think it’s possible. There’s only six days left. ... It would be very difficult.”
Tribes, Bridgeport near casino deal that could replace MGM plan
HARTFORD — The city of Bridgeport and Connecticut’s two Native American tribes are close to a deal that would deliver a casino resort worth at least $350 million, a development that could unseat MGM Resorts International’s larger plan for Bridgeport harbor.
Mayor Joe Ganim, legislators and the tribes held several meetings Thursday to negotiate a deal. Those conversations are ongoing, but a preliminary proposal drafted by the city, and conversations with people involved in the talks, point to a midsize casino and large hotel resort.
The plan would need approval from the state House and Senate and governor to move forward — which could happen early next week. No location is named in a draft of the legislation, but the parties are discussing several sites, sources said.
A casino deal between Bridgeport and the tribes represents a shift for the city’s legislative delegation, who for years have maintained that they support an open, competitive bidding process to bring a new casino to the state’s largest city.
MGM has said all along it only wants the right to compete for a license. But that plan has been blocked for the last several years by supporters of the tribes. The agreement with the tribes, by contrast, would grant the license without competition. That would preserve the state’s compact with the tribes, under which the state receives 25 percent of slot machine revenue, or about $240 million this year.
It’s unclear what payments the tribes would make to the state under the new deal. MMCT, a joint venture of the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes, which own Foxwoods Resort and Mohegan Sun casinos, respectively, did not issue a comment Thursday night.
Rep. Jack Hennessy, D-Bridgeport, said jobs are the “key” to the deal.
“We’re cautiously optimistic that we are going to be moving forward to provide revenue and jobs for the city of Bridgeport,” he said.The tribes would construct a Bridgeport casino with a minimum of 2,000 slot machines, 100 gaming tables, a 500-room hotel, with a spa, restaurants and retail space, according to a working draft of the legislation draft shared with Hearst Connecticut Media.
Any deal between the city and tribes faces enormous obstacles beyond approval at the state Capitol, where the legislative session ends next Wednesday.
MGM would be likely to file a lawsuit claiming its rights were violated. It is also unclear how large a gambling facility the tribes could finance in Bridgeport. Their revenues from Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun have declined recently and they have investments planned in a joint East Windsor casino venture.
Legislation would need the signature of Gov. Ned Lamont, who has not participated in negotiations over the past week after his own gambling deal fell apart.
In that sweeping effort, Lamont tried to persuade the tribes to drop the East Windsor plan in exchange for a license in Bridgeport. MGM would agree to walk away under thart scenario, and sports betting would be shared between the tribes, the Connecticut Lottery Corp. and Sportech, a New Haven-based maker of gaming technology that operates 16 off-track betting locations in Connecticut.
The tribes refused to agree to drop the East Windsor plan and refused to share sports betting activities with the other companies, claiming an exclusive right. It’s unclear how and whether the latest deal would affect sports betting.
Speaker of the House Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, has helped broker the latest Bridgeport negotiations.
The joint venture won approval in 2017 for a midsize casino along Interstate-91 in East Windsor, which was designed to pick off customers driving to the $1 billion MGM Springfield casino 13 miles to the north. That project is not yet under construction.
MGM previously filed a lawsuit against the state over approval of a casino by the tribes in East Windsor, withdrew the lawsuit and has said it will file it again.
Hennessy said the delegation believes a deal can be reached to avoid an MGM lawsuit.“The key to the resolution is to avoid litigation,” he said.
Windsor Locks voters approve tax break for sports complex
Windsor Locks voters on Wednesday backed a plan to create a Tax Increment Financing district in the area of the proposed All Sports Village complex at the east end of the Route 20 corridor.
The vote was 969-719.
The sports complex, initially pitched to residents last July, will bring $27 million in spending to the town within five years, according to a study commissioned by the developer and performed by consulting firm Sports Facilities Advisory.
First Selectman Christopher Kervick and developer Andrew Borgia, principal of JABS Sports Management, have made it clear that the deal would require the establishment of a TIF district, which would allow the town to deposit new property taxes collected from the business into a special fund and then use that money to subsidize the business and make infrastructure improvements to the surrounding area.
But other residents raised a host of concerns about the TIF arrangement and the complex itself. Some oppose bringing in a business that is unable or unwilling to operate without such abatements, while others have said the complex would disturb neighbors and strain local resources.
The vote originally was to take place at a town meeting, but more than 300 residents signed a petition to force the referendum. Carl Schiessl, a former state senator who led that effort, also has raised concerns about contamination to the Waterworks Brook, a protected property neighboring the proposed site of the complex.
At Wednesday’s referendum, a majority of the almost 1,700 voters who came out supported the idea; several voters were still shuffling in and out of Town Hall only minutes before the polls closed.
The town now must negotiate an agreement with JABS Sports Management as to what percentage of its tax money will be rebated each year. The agreement allows for a rebate of up to 90 percent, though the town could negotiate a lower number.