With the tolls Gov. Ned Lamont proposed in his first budget address two years ago a non-starter in Hartford, he used his second budget address to propose a mileage tax for tractor trailers and a regional gas tax as cures for the state’s broken transportation fund.
While there is universal agreement in Hartford that the state transportation fund needs a serious fix if Connecticut is going to even maintain transportation infrastructure at its current state, the best way to fill the $60 million budget hole is hotly contested, and Republicans cast Lamont’s proposals as regressive taxes that will fall mainly on low- and middle-income people in Connecticut .
In his budget address Wednesday, Lamont proposed a mileage tax for tractor trailers like one in place in New York, which he said would raise $90 million a year and apply to trucks that weight more than 26,000 pounds, which Lamont said “can cause the vast majority of damage to our highways.”
According to the budget office, most trucks would pay between $2.50 and $11.50 to cross the state, and the most it would cost is about $20. Budget Secretary Melissa McCaw contrasted the fee with the up to $110 fee for trucks to cross the George Washington Bridge. The mileage rate would increase with the weight of the truck.
Another $80 million would be raised by a regional initiative where gasoline and fuel providers will need to buy credits for the pollution caused by consumers burning the fuel they sell.
The transportation fund is running a $59.5 million deficit this year, and is on track to reach a $163.3 million deficit in 2026, according to McCaw. The amount of money from the general fund directed toward bailing out the transportation fund has been increasing rapidly, too – from $272.9 million in 2011 to $631.3 million last year, to an estimated $1.05 billion in 2024 without a sustainable revenue source.
House Majority Leader Jason Rojas told reporters in a news conference that truck drivers’ work is essential, and it’s also essential to provide them a road system they can actually drive on. While they won’t be happy about being proposed as the source of revenue to improve the state’s transportation infrastructure, those improvements will end up benefiting them if lawmakers can reach a resolution on transportation funding, he said.
“Time is money when you’re a trucker,” Rojas said in response to a question from Hearst’s Ken Dixon. “To the extent that we can reduce congestion and delays, that ends up saving them.”
Ritter said lawmakers already had the debate on tolls and couldn’t get the votes for it, so that proposal isn’t coming back. The alternative, raised by Republican leaders two years ago, drew money from the rainy day fund, which Ritter said would have left the state in a difficult position at the onset of the COVID pandemic.
“So you had two ideas, one dead and one Republican, for lack of a better term,” Ritter said. “Neither of them got anywhere, neither had the support. I hope this one finds reasonable minds agreeing upon it.”
Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly called Lamont’s proposals “regressive and onerous for middle class families” in a separate call with reporters.
“The less money you earn, the harder and bigger that bite is out of your family budget,” Kelly said.
In a recent interview with CT Examiner, Kelly said his proposal to use the rainy day fund to pay down pension debt, and use the savings from not having to pay so much interest on that debt to fund transportation, would address the funding issue without adding to the tax burden of middle- and low-income families.
State Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Lyme, ranking Republican on the Transportation Committee, told CT Examiner that the truck tax was a new idea that he was interested in learning more about, particularly how it has worked in New York.
Carney said he needs to see more specifics about how the tax would be collected, and how those funds would be leveraged to secure federal money. Lamont claimed in his budget proposal that tax on trucks would help the state secure funding for $1 billion of projects over the next five years.
Carney said the difference between a mileage tax and a toll on trucks is that constitutionality of the tolls remains a question, and the mileage tax may not have the same high costs to set up and operate as tolling would.
“It’s one of those things that I think a lot of legislators want to see how it’s really going to operate,” he said.
Carney said he shares Kelly’s concerns about what the fuel tax will do to the price of gas, since many middle- and lower-income people can’t afford to get an electric car and will be stuck paying more than wealthier people.
He said he also wants to see more specifics about where the funding will go, and what the actual impact on the price of gas will be, with estimates ranging from 5 to 38 cents a gallon. Carney said there also needs to be more details about how the regional aspect of the program will work. So far, only Rhode Island, Connecticut and the District of Columbia have signed on to the taxes.
“I think this stuff should be spent on roads and bridges, so I would really like to see where those dollars are going,” Carney said. “I’ve heard some rumors that it could go to electric vehicle charging stations, and I don’t think that’s what it should be spent on if that tax is passed.”
In an email after this report was published, Department of Energy and Environmental Protection spokesman Tony Russell said that the higher cost estimates Carney cites are based on “outdated and flawed analysis.”
Russell pointed to Transportation Climate Initiative modeling, which Russell said projects the price of gasoline will increase 5 cents a gallon in 2023, and that the increase would not be more than 9 cents because the program allows for more carbon emissions allowances to be sold if prices rise above a certain threshold.
The initiative’s model assumes that fuel suppliers who buy those allowances pass the entire cost on to consumers.
Hartford line spared cuts
Connecticut’s rail and bus ridership has seen a decline since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with empty cars becoming a feature of Amtrak service. Lamont’s budget proposes significant cuts to transit funding to reflect that decline, despite expectations that ridership will rebound somewhat in the future.
Lamont proposed cutting $34.9 million from the New Haven Line service, $4.9 million from Shore Line East, $3 million from Express bus services as routes are consolidated, and $2.2 million from the ADA Para-Transit Program.
At the same time, Lamont proposed a $1.1 million increase to extend daily bus service in the greater New Haven Area to 1 a.m., and an additional $1.2 million to increase the number of trains serving the Waterbury line from 15 to 22.
Notably absent from cuts was the Hartford Line train service. Carney said he had questions about that. If ridership is down on New Haven and Shore Line East, Hartford must be down, too, he said. Any transit cuts should be across the board and not just targeting specific lines, he said.
“We unfortunately do have to make temporary adjustments based on the impact of COVID – I don’t think it makes sense to spend money running trains if nobody’s on them,” Carney said.
Carney also questioned the para-transit cuts, saying they seemed “draconian” and that he plans to ask how the administration plans on cutting that service and how it will be adjusted.
“I understand why the Governor would make temporary cuts to certain public transportation, but there may be a growing demand for that service once more people get vaccinated,” Carney said. “Unfortunately, it’s one of those things that nobody can really predict right now.”
This story was updated to reflect comments by DEEP spokesman Tony Russell on the anticipated consumer costs of carbon caps.