With just over three weeks to go before the end of the legislative session, the fate of Gov. Ned Lamont’s highway toll plan remains unknown.
At a Tuesday morning press briefing, House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz said negotiations on the contentious issue are continuing.
"There’s no grand bargain being hatched behind closed doors, but there is ongoing discussion, where we need to end up, what is politically feasible,'' said Aresimowicz, who supports highway tolls.
The Democrat from Berlin said there is a great deal of misinformation about tolls.
"The details almost don’t matter, people have drawn their lines in the sand and they have perceived details,'' Aresimowicz said. "
"You can tell them 100 times to Sunday that there’s no more 82 gantries and they [say] there are 82 gantries and you all are lying,'' Aresimowicz said. "You can tell them you’re going to get 40 percent from out-of-state [motorists] and you’re going to offer discounts [to Connecticut residents] and they’ll say that’s not true.
"It has now become an emotional debate,'' he added.The session ends on June 5th at midnight.
Fixing an aging interstate: How I-95 construction challenges illustrate US road issues
HTV National Desk
Waiting more than a decade for one group of road projects to be finished was just one of the construction issues I-95 drivers have faced.
In another section, the wait could be decades.
That’s because the East Coast’s Interstate 95, which is one of the busiest routes in the country, has some of the worst deteriorating sections in the U.S. Meanwhile, expensive projects target small sections that can take years to finish.
Here’s a look at what’s happening and what’s needed to fix the 1,917-mile route from Miami to Houlton, Maine.
I-95 already serves more than a third of the U.S. population. It has more than 1,000 miles in urban areas, most of which are already heavily congested, according to the I-95 Corridor Coalition.
The first section of I-95 was laid out in the 1950s, and the entire interstate was finally completed in 2018 when a section near the Pennsylvania and New Jersey state line was opened — more than 60 years after the interstate first opened.
But ongoing road projects will continue to bring changes for many drivers’ routines, where already packed sections will have fewer lanes than usual while workers make much-needed repairs.
Several states already are in the midst of construction projects with costs in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Adding lanes, repairing bridges and replacing and removing ramps are some of the projects underway across multiple states.
The Philadelphia Inquirer said an ongoing project there, which involves rebuilding an 8-mile stretch, will cost $2.7 billion.
The newspaper said other work on the interstate around Philadelphia “should end by the time your grandkids are driving.”
Still, the rebuilt highway should last 75 to 100 years, Pennsylvania transportation Secretary Leslie Richards told the newspaper.
The project’s final cost, according to contract figures provided by the state, was $413.5 million.
Delaware, which also is replacing part of the interstate, has an approximately $200 million reconstruction project that will begin next year.
That project will force both directions of I-95 traffic to use one side at a time while crews repair the opposite side.
Problems range from a deteriorating median barrier to substandard guardrails and 19 bridges in need of rehabilitation.
Spending isn’t the only way to help the busy interstate’s issues.
The I-95 Corridor Coalition identified a multi-pronged strategy in its 2040 vision report. Recommendations ranged from increasing rail passenger ridership to shipping more by rail and doubling transportation investments.
The coalition’s report also called for investing in additional airport capacity, including the development of new reliever airports for key markets.
There are also calls for an overhaul in the way road projects are funded.
“The interstate highway system was first approved in 1956, and really, there have been no full-aperture looks at the highway system since that time, yet a lot has changed,” Augustine said.
His committee with The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine delivered a congressionally mandated report and recommended Congress bring a legislative overhaul to the highway system, including increasing a federal fuel tax and adding fees, such as tolls or other measures.
NPU breaks ground on emergency water line to Sprague
NORWICH – On Tuesday, Norwich Public Utilities held a groundbreaking ceremony to mark the start of construction for an emergency interconnection water line that will serve Sprague. The partnership provides NPU with additional state resources while allowing Sprague to avoid the cost of installing the water line on its own.
“We are very excited to begin construction on a project that demonstrates the importance and value of regionalization and cooperation,” said Chris LaRose, acting general manager at NPU. “By working with the town of Sprague, Sen. (Cathy) Osten and the Department of Public Health, everyone benefits and our communities have greater access to safe and clean drinking water.”
The project has a budget of $3.2 million and is funded through the Department of Health’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund (50 percent grant, 50 percent low-interest loan). When complete, the interconnection will have the ability to provide Sprague with up to 60,000 gallons of water a day in an emergency.
Under the agreement, NPU is installing a water main from Norwich into Sprague to serve as an emergency interconnection to the town’s water system. In consideration for this investment, NPU receives a significantly higher reimbursement from the state’s Department of Public Health for a number of other water projects already under way.
By supporting the Sprague project, NPU is eligible for 30 percent grant funding to support a number of projects instead of the typical 8 percent. Those projects include:
- $7 million upgrade at the Stony Brook Water Treatment Plant.
- $2 million to upgrade the water filtration system at the Deep River Water Treatment Plant.
- $5.4 million to upgrade the transmission main from the Stony Brook Water Treatment Plant.
- $850,000 for a new mixing and aeration system at the Occum Water Tank.
Next week, NPU will begin the process of installing 9,700 feet of ductile iron piping in a trench along Route 97 from the Occum area of Norwich into Sprague.
The project is scheduled to be completed by the end of November. Haluch Water Contracting of Ludlow, Mass., is the contractor for the project, working under the direction of NPU.
The state House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly Tuesday for a bipartisan measure that proponents say would make Connecticut a reliable customer of electricity produced by offshore wind turbines, providing a foundation for a renewable-energy source that could one day match the output of the aging Millstone nuclear power station.
The vote came less than a week after a bitterly partisan overnight fight over a $15 minimum wage, underscoring that renewable energy is one of the issues that can unite Democrats and Republicans in an era of polarized politics. Polling shows a majority of voters in both parties support renewables, and lawmakers say that is especially true in New England.
The bill passed on a vote of 134-10 by the House and was sent to the Senate. It is supported by the administration of Gov. Ned Lamont, which has supported investments intended to make the port of New London a major staging area for the hundreds of turbines expected to rise from the federally controlled seabed off the coast of southern New England.
Connecticut has lagged behind its neighbors in committing to wind, but energy developers showed confidence in a regional growing market for wind power as they bid a record $405 million in December for federally administered leases in the ocean waters east of Block Island and south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
“This legislation sends an unmistakable signal that Connecticut is poised for historic investment in offshore wind,” said Katie Dykes, the commissioner of DEEP, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “I applaud the legislature’s support for this bill, and here at DEEP we are looking forward to implementing this policy once it secures final passage.”
If passed and signed into law as expected, Dykes would be required within 14 days to begin the process of soliciting bids from wind power products for as much as 2,000 megawatts, the output of Millstone. But the measure also recognizes the current limits of wind: It sets a goal of 2030 to reach that milestone.
“This is an opportunity that we cannot squander, and the growing, unified momentum behind this bill shows just how important this is to Connecticut,” Lamont said.
Rep. David Arconti, D-Danbury, the co-chair of the Energy and Technology Committee, said the unusual 14-day directive was included to ensure that the state acts before a federal tax credit expires at the end of the year.
“We’re not sure if it will be be renewed, so we want our state to be able to take advantage of the federal tax credit on offshore wind and get the best price possible,” Arconti said in a briefing conducted with the ranking Republicans on the committee, Sen. Paul Formica of East Lyme and Rep. Charles Ferraro of West Haven.Millstone’s two reactors are licensed to operate until 2035 and 2045, with the possibility of extensions. But Millstone’s owner, Dominion, has repeatedly raised questions about the plant’s ability to continue to compete in a market driven by cheaper natural gas. The loss of Millstone, by far the single largest source of carbon-free electricity in southern New England, would set back the state’s efforts to meet its goals for reducing greenhouse emissions.
Lawmakers skirted the issue of climate change during a brief debate, instead focusing on the need to embrace what appears to be a fast-maturing segment of the power industry. While Connecticut has changed its energy procurement rules to stabilize the profitability of Millstone, the nuclear plant is only a bridge to the future, Formica said.
“It’s important that we don’t get caught in 2030, should Millstone decide to go down,” Ferraro said. “We don’t want to get caught having to replace without a plan.”
The bill requires the state to develop practices for minimizing the impact to wildlife and commercial fisheries, with bidders required to offer mitigation plans. Bidders would be required to pay the prevailing wage on the projects.
Ten Republicans voted no, but nearly five times as many supported passage
Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, an environmentalist who is the longest-serving member of the House, said the vote reflects that there generally is a pragmatic and non-partisan approach to renewable energy in the northeast and especially in Connecticut, which sits at the end of natural gas pipelines and hydro-electric transmission lines, and where electricity is expensive.
The debate in Washington D.C. is more focused on the off-shore drilling of oil, not the promotion of off-shore wind, Mushinsky said.Formica said the Energy and Technology Committee generally has been non-partisan, both under its previous co-chairs, former Rep. Lonnie Reed and former Sen. Paul Doyle, and now under Arconti and Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex.
“Energy and electricity is not a partisan issue,” Formica said. “We have to do whatever we can to make sure the people of the state of Connecticut have what they need to operate their businesses and their homes and to move forward to the next generation of energy, which we know has got to include some renewables, given the problems we’ve had with transmissions to get hydro down from Quebec and and to get gas in from Pennsylvania.
“This is something we can take control of.”
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said the General Assembly still can work on bipartisan measures, even on the heels of a bitter fight over raising the minimum wage.
“There will be things we agree on and other things we don’t agree on,” Klarides said. “If you’re going to try to compare us to Washington, we would prefer to never be compared. As dysfunctional the moments we may have here, down there they can’t even speak to each other, which I think is sad.”
Toll plan stalling as legislative session nears adjournment
PAUL HUGHES REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN
HARTFORD — The drive for highway tolls is stalling in the legislature as Gov. Ned Lamont and toll supporters try to nurse a tolling plan to passage.
There are three weeks left before the General Assembly adjourns, and there appears to be no middle lane acceptable to enough legislators on highway tolls at this time.
“We need to meet in the middle. This has to be an issue where there is compromise, and people are willing to take a tough vote,” House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said Tuesday.
A lack of Democratic votes continues to bedevil Democratic majority leaders and the Democratic governor, and House and Senate Republicans are unlikely to supply GOP votes to bail them out on highway tolls.
“It is interesting that this was something that they claimed was such a done deal in the beginning of the session because they had so many more Democrats in the General Assembly and a Democrat governor, and yet they do not have the votes to pass it,” said House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby.
Aresimowicz acknowledged that he has not yet lined up 76 votes in his 91-member caucus that are needed to pass legislation in the 151-seat House without Republican votes.
“I don’t think we have landed anywhere,” he said.
Lamont has been traveling the state in recent days trying to rally support for electronic highway tolls, and he also sent all 187 legislators a letter last Thursday saying that he is open to compromising on his tolling plan.
He showed up unexpectedly at an anti-toll forum Monday night in his hometown of Greenwich that Republicans legislators had organized, and he made pitch for his plan and fielded questions from a not-so receptive audience.
His personal lobbying campaign does not seem to be producing the desired results yet, and Lamont and toll advocates are running out of time as the close of the 2019 session on June 5 fast approaches
“They know the people of the state don’t support it. They know they don’t have enough legislators to support it. Now, I hear they are going around trying to buy people off to get votes to support it,” Klarides said.
Lamont has been offering sweeteners to try to entice legislators into supporting tolls without any apparent success, including offers to cut bus fares, limit the number of tolling gantries to 50, lock toll rates for three years, lower the gasoline tax, and keep the Merritt Parkway toll-free.
Public opinion has been mixed on tolls. Recent polling has shown more opposition than support. Toll opponents delivered a petition with more than 100,000 signatures from people around the state who are against tolls.
The grassroots opposition group No Tolls CT has also organized an anti-toll demonstration at the state Capitol for Saturday.
The Transportation Committee voted out bills that House Democrats, Senate Democrats and Lamont proposed to put tolls on Interstate 84, Interstate 91, Interstate 95, and portions of Route 15 comprising the Merritt and Wilbur Cross parkways.
The Democratic bills all propose to charge different variable rates during peak and off-peak hours, and each would offer discounts to purchasers of a state-issued electronic pass and frequent commuters.
The exact details of the proposed tolling system are not spelled out such as toll rates, discounts, and the number and spacing of tolling gantries. The tolling bills direct the state Department of Transportation to develop a tolling plan and then negotiate a tolling agreement with the Federal Highway Administration
Democrats are objecting to how Republicans have been filling in the blanks in the GOP campaign to stop tolls, including relying on a map from a months-old DOT study that shows 82 tolling gantries every 6.6 miles on six interstates, the Merritt and Wilbur Cross parkways, and three other state routes.
“The details almost don’t matter. People have drawn their lines in the sand, and they have perceived details,” Aresimowicz said.
“You can tell them 100 times to Sunday that there are no more 82 gantries, and there are 82 gantries, and you all are lying. You can tell them you’re going to get 40 percent from out of state, and you’re going to offer discounts, and they say that is not true, show me how. It has now become an emotional debate,” he continued.
Klarides said she does not believe the Lamont administration’s assertions, including estimates that tolls could raise $800 million annually when fully up and running.
“I don’t trust any of it,” she said.