With Tolls Off the Table, Transportation Funding Remains in a Question

State Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport, knows the bill he is proposing is not going to pass. 

Co-sponsored by State Sen. Alex Kasser, D-Greenwich, the proposal would install electronic tolls on interstates I-84, I-91, I-95, and portions of Route 15, reviving a political debate from two years ago about how best to fund the state’s Special Transportation Fund. 

The set-aside in the state budget is intended to support Department of Transportation operations, transit programs, and the debt on borrowing for infrastructure upgrades across the state.

Gov. Ned Lamont, who campaigned on a promise of limited tolls on trucking, asked state lawmakers in 2019 to levy tolls — and floated a variety of smaller and larger plans to that end — but was unable to reach an agreement with either Democrats or Republicans in the statehouse.

State Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, House co-chair of the Transportation Committee, has said that tolls will not be considered during this session. Still, Haskell said his bill serves a different purpose. 

“The politics around tolls haven’t changed, and I’m not under any illusion that they’re going to pass in the upcoming session,” Haskell said. “The only thing that’s changed is that the fiscal challenges facing the Special Transportation Fund have gotten worse.” 

According to the Office of Fiscal Analysis fiscal accountability report, the Special Transportation Fund is projected to be insolvent by 2024 absent additional funding. 

Haskell said the bill is a follow-up to a campaign promise, and he hopes it will inspire conversation and shed light on the challenges facing the state’s infrastructure funding. 

“I felt like I was elected to show my constituents that I have a plan,” Haskell said. “I’m not just going to complain about the state’s infrastructure problems, I’m going to propose a solution. If my colleagues disagree with my plan to fund transportation, I welcome their plans. Tell me in the affirmative what you’d like to do instead.” 

State Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Lyme, ranking member of the Transportation Committee, also sees little potential for tolls as a solution, particularly due to pandemic-induced economic hardship. 

“Right now, I just don’t think asking the middle class to pay more is the right way to go,” Carney said. “A lot of folks are not recovering at all from the pandemic, and I think we should be very careful as a state when asking for additional revenue right now. We also just don’t yet know the long-term implications of COVID on our transportation systems.” 

However, Haskell sees the pandemic as a reason to prioritize public transportation infrastructure, even as many Connecticut residents are working from home. 

“People will be returning to Connecticut’s roads and highways, and our infrastructure is not ready for that,” Haskell said. “Our trains are slower than they were 50 years ago, and we have more than 350 structurally deficient bridges. The pandemic has dramatically reduced ridership, further exacerbating the severe fiscal challenges facing the special transportation fund. We have to think about solutions.” 

Lamont has said that he will lay out proposals to add revenue to the Special Transportation Fund in his February budget address. In a press briefing, Lamont shared that he anticipated “a couple hundred million dollars from the feds for transportation related assistance,” giving the legislature wiggle room to come up with a long-term solution. 

Carney also hopes the federal government will step in to help solve the problem. 

“Two years ago, there was a discussion with the federal government’s Build America Bureau to get very low interest federal loans to repair roads and bridges, and that conversation ended alongside the toll debate,” Carney said. “I want to explore any and all federal options. A lot of folks use our roads. More people use our federal roads than live in Connecticut, so I’d like to explore how we can get federal funding to fix 95, 91 and 84.”

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