NORWALK — Tolls are needed to fund the state’s roads, rails and bridges. That was the message Gov. Ned Lamont, state Rep. Lucy Dathan, D-New Canaan, and state Rep. Chris Perone, D-Norwalk, shared at the “Paving the Way Forward” forum on Monday evening.
“We’re facing really a point in our state’s history where decisions have to made that are going to determine the next 30, 40, 50 years of economic growth, our solvency, our priorities as a state,” Perone said to a crowd of over 50 people.
The forum, which was held at Norwalk Community College, gave attendees the chance to hear why Lamont was proposing installing tolls on highways such as Interstate 95, Interstate 84 and the Merritt Parkway, as well as why some of the local lawmakers are supporting the measures.
“The last 30 years, Connecticut has underinvested ... in our bridges, rails,” Perone said. “You’ve seen where we are. Your perception is like mine. The bottlenecks, the tie-ups getting down from Norwalk to the Stamford area is ridiculous.”
Dathan said that she believes it’s important to move transportation infrastructure forward to attract businesses and new residents.
“The rails are really struggling,” she said. “The time to get from Norwalk into Grand Central Terminal has increased by another 15 minutes and it’s shocking.”
Still, the idea of tolls has not been well received by many members of the community and Republican lawmakers who have voiced their opposition to the proposals, arguing against passing more costs on to residents.
Republicans have voiced support for a “Prioritize Progress” program that proposed reallocating debt service bonding projects. Their plan would call for Connecticut to have more than $2.1 billion each year to spend on transportation projects if the state combined $700 million in annual borrowing repaid out of the General Fund the , $700 million to $800 million it’s already borrowing and paying off out of the Special Transportation Fund, and $750 million per year in federal grants.
Lamont said that their proposal showed both parties realized investing in transportation was important to the state’s growth.“Both the Republicans and the Democrats believe we’re going to need about $700 million a year more if we’re going to speed up Metro-North,” he said, adding it would help improve roadways, the interchanges on I-95. “The biggest difference is the Republicans want to borrow it. I would make the case that we’ve been addicted to debt for a long time.”
Perone said that he understood people’s frustrations over the addition of another expense.
“For a long time, I was a ‘no’ on this,” he said, citing that putting the funding in a lock box to invest in transportation helped him get on board.
Dathan said that she believed the roads should be paid for by those who are traveling on them, including the fact that about 40 percent of the revenue would come from out-of-state drivers.
“I consider tolling a usage fee,” she said. “I would much rather our roads be paid for by the people who are using them. You can get through the state of Connecticut without buying gas. We have trucks that are utilizing our roads and putting a lot of wear and tear (on them.)”
Lamont said he understood it was a “tough vote” for legislators, but he believes it would be a necessary one.
$1 Bus Fare Offered In Exchange For Tolls
If Gov. Ned Lamont succeeds in getting tolls reinstituted on state highways, he’ll cut CT Transit bus fare from $1.75 to $1 a ride.
Lamont announced that deal during a press conference Monday morning at New Haven’s Union Station.
He was joined by local officials and labor activists to make the case for the controversial electronic tolling plan, whose fate the legislature will determine in coming weeks.The governor said he needs the money from the tolls to upgrade the state’s trains, bus service, and highways.
“We’ve got to do a better job of getting people out of those cars” and “allow people to get around the city of New Haven” on buses, the governor said.
It was one of several references made during the press conference to how the toll plan could benefit cities like New Haven.
Lamont spoke of how higher-speed rail to New York and Boston could help make Union Station “the crossroads of the state when it comes to transportation” and “bring cities back to life.” He noted Yale-New Haven Hospital’s recent announcement of plans to build an $838 million neuroscience center on its St. Raphael campus as an example of the kind of next-generation jobs that better transportation can support.
The governor also mentioned the high rates of asthma “for people living along highways”; New Haven’s Annex neighborhood, in the shadow of the I-91/I-95 interchange, has regularly shown up at the top of lists of places in the state with the greatest concentration of asthma cases.
The tolls plan will probably include a “close to” 50 percent discount for in-state commuters and possible exemptions for low-income drivers, said New Haven State Rep. Roland Lemar (pictured at the top of the story), who co-chairs the legislature’s Transportation Committee.Lemar and Mayor Toni Harp also spoke of how tolls will draw 40 percent of their revenue from out-of-state drivers. Neighboring states are already collecting toll revenue from Connecticut drivers to build up their economies, Lemar noted, so Connecticut should do the same.
Department of Transportation Commissioner Joseph J. Giulietti, who grew up in New Haven, noted how upgrading transit can spawn new development. In less than a year of operation, the new Hartford Line to New Haven has sparked plans for $400 million in “transit-oriented development” (TOD), he claimed. Some $200 million worth of TOD “has already sprung up” along the 9.4 miles of the CT Fast Track busway to Hartford, he added.A reporter asked the event’s emcee, New Haven Rising organizer, the Rev. Scott Marks (pictured above), whether low-income New Haveners can afford new tolls.
“Yeah, if we had more people in construction doing good union work” on transit projects, Marks responded. “This brings more opportunity. More tourism. We’re going to have more people be able to afford not only tolls but a decent quality of life.”
Republican Bob Stefanowski, who ran against Democrat Lamont for governor last year, held a separate event on the New Haven Green earlier Monday blasting the tolls proposal.
Gov. Ned Lamont crashes GOP anti-toll forum in Greenwich
Back in his hometown of Greenwich, Gov. Ned Lamont turned to his most strident messenger Monday night to deliver a closing argument on why Connecticut needs tolls -- himself.The Democrat made a cameo at an anti-toll forum organized by Republicans, answering critics of his highly contentious plan to charge motorists a “user fee” on Interstates 95, 91, 84 and the Merritt and Wilbur Cross parkways.
Lamont’s appearance at the event -- where Republicans presented an alternative transportation funding plan known as Prioritize Progress that relies on bonding instead of tolls --- shows the urgency of the governor with less than a month remaining until the end of the legislative session.
“The biggest difference we have up in Hartford right now is that Prioritize Progress says, ‘We’re going to put it on the company credit card,’ ” Lamont said. “We’re going to borrow that money -- $700 million a year, 100 percent paid by Connecticut residents, plus interest. I know the alternative doesn’t make any of you happy, which is why you’re here. But the alternative is to have a user fee where the folks who use the roads, not the taxpayers, pay for it. Forty percent of it would be paid for by out-of-staters.”
Greenwich was the final stop on a 21-municipality tour by state Rep. Laura Devlin, R-Fairfield, and Sen. Henri Martin, R-Bristol, the ranking members of the legislature’s Transportation Committee, who said that tolls would have a crippling effect when compounded with the seventh-highest gasoline tax in the nation.
Both GOP members of Greenwich’s now-split legislative delegation [Reps. Livvy Floren and Fred Camillo] were in attendance at the event, where a majority of the 65 people in the audience indicated that they opposed tolls. The delegation’s two Democrats, Sen. Alex Bergstein, the Transportation Committee’s vice chair, and Rep. Steve Meskers, were absent. Meskers serves locally on the Representative Town Meeting, which coincided with the forum.
The forum’s organizers displayed an outdated state Department of Transportation map showing collection points on Routes 8, 9, 2, as well as 691 and 395 that are not part of Lamont’s current proposal.
“The governor hates this map,” Devlin said before Lamont’s appearance. “He calls it the measles map.”
Republicans contend that a newer version of the map with 50 collection points has not been presented to federal transportation officials, while the old one has. Devlin said legislators would have no input on the location of the gantries and characterized the toll fee estimates of the Lamont administration as arbitrary and understating the true costs of tolls.
“I want you to know, they’re all fake,” Devlin said.
At the 75-minute mark of the forum, Lamont, a former Greenwich selectman and one-time town finance board member, entered the Town Hall Meeting Room with a state trooper from his security detail.
“We were hoping you’d show up here tonight,” Devlin said.
“I used to work here,” Lamont responded.
Republicans defended their alternative transportation funding plan, saying it would not exceed the state’s constitutional spending cap and would still use bonding for school construction, UCONN, clean water and other critical areas.
“We’re not talking about new money, more money,” Devlin said.
Lamont listened from the side of the room during a question-and-answer portion of the program, which some audience members used to voice concerns about the direction of the state.
“We’re the only state that has not pulled out of this recession," said Barry Michelson, a Stamford Republican who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of his city in 2017.
Devlin asked if Lamont had a few minutes to take questions, which he did.
“I thank you very much for the opportunity. I didn’t mean to interrupt your party,” Lamont said.
Patrick Sasser, a small businessman from Stamford who is the co-founder of No Tolls CT, accused Lamont of trying to dodge him.
“Sorry you weren’t in the office the other day when I presented 100,000 signatures,” Sasser said of a petition drive by the group.
Sasser asked Lamont what he would say to small businesses that would be affected by the cost of tolls. For example, he said, a Greenwich heating oil company that he did not name has estimated its toll costs will be $55,000 to $72,000 annually.
“What do you say to these companies?” he said. “What do you say to these small businesses who are already struggling just to make it here in Connecticut and then putting this additional tax burden on them?”
Lamont challenged Sasser to find a better option.
“Patrick, I would say tell them the truth. Tell them the truth that if you borrow $700 million a year and ask him to pay for that over the next 20 years with interest, you’re not doing him or his kids any favors," Lamont said. "Tell him that this congestion gets worse and worse and it takes him 10, 15 minutes longer to deliver his oil. You’re not doing him any favors at all. You can say, ‘No tolls,’ but you’ve got to say what you’re for. Are you for bonding? Are you for doing nothing? You have to have an alternative.”
Toll foes looked to engage the governor further, to which Lamont closed, “Hey everybody, I don’t want to be a downer here, so thank you so much for the chance to be back here.”