After extensive debate, the Connecticut Transportation Committee today voted along party lines to approve several tolling bills, which have sparked public interest and outcry across the state.
The Democratic party majority held enough of a lead to ensure passage against Committee Republicans.
The bills allow, in varying degrees, the Connecticut Department of Transportation to establish tolls on Connecticut’s major interstates and Route 15.
Senate Bill 423 was amended to remove language creating a quasi-public transportation authority in response to public criticism. Instead, the bill would create a special department within the DOT and establish priority projects for the toll revenue to address.
A number of those projects involve train repairs to the New Haven line, the Danbury line and the Waterbury line with other repairs to some rail stations.
SB 423 would also impose a moratorium on toll rates for 10 years and specifies the toll revenue would be deposited directly into the lockbox.
“We have a desperate need now,” said Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, chairman of the Transportation Committee. “We need to find a way to address our infrastructure.”
“My goal is to move these bills forward, so we can have a robust debate,” Leone told the committee.
Similar bills were passed out of committee during the 2018 legislative session but faced significant public opposition and a closely divided House and Senate. The tolling measures were never brought up for a vote in the House, despite promises by House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz.
But this year may prove dramatically different. Democrats hold significant majorities in the House and Senate and have made tolling one of their key legislative agenda items this year.
Gov. Ned Lamont also backs the tolling Connecticut’s highways and reversed a key campaign promise that he would only seek to toll large trucks, by proposing legislation to toll all vehicles.
Lamont also proposed freezing the vehicle sales tax revenue transfer to the Special Transportation Fund as part of his budget which will leave the fund bankrupt by 2022.
Rep. Laura Devlin, R-Fairfield, questioned whether lawmakers could restrain themselves from taking money from the STF through either sweeps or diversions as the legislature has in the past to fill budget gaps.
“This is a real concern to the residents of Connecticut,” Devlin said. “This has strong bipartisan opposition.”
Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, said it would be “irresponsible” to vote on something without specifics such as where the tolls will be, how much they will cost and how much revenue it will raise and said DOT would be able to raise rates without legislative approval.
“I find that difficult to accept,” Lavielle said. “If I’m going to vote on something that will cost my constituents money… I need to know the answers to these questions.”
Leone said the tolls must be legislatively approved in order to be considered by the federal government.
Rep. Travis Simms, D-Norwalk, said he represents working people who are struggling to make ends meet. “I think by putting tolls in the state it will have a huge impact on my constituents,” Simms said.
Simms said he would vote to pass tolls out of committee, but “I will reserve my right to vote ‘No’ on my final vote.”
Democrats pointed out that Jim Smith and Bob Patricelli, chairs of the Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth, also proposed tolls as part of their recommendations to solve Connecticut’s on-going fiscal problems.
Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, said the state should consider re-opening the SEBAC agreement and adjust state employee pensions and benefits — which was also proposed by Smith and Patricelli’s commission — in order to save money before imposing tolls on Connecticut residents.
Leone said Republicans have not put forward any alternatives to tolls, which sparked House Miniority Leader Themis Klarides to appear before the Transportation Committee and lambast Leone.
“Scare tactics and untruths are not what this building is about,” Klarides said. “To say there has not been any alternatives is not true and disrespectful.”
Leone said the Republicans’ Prioritize Progress plan has not come before the Transportation Committee. Klarides pointed out Republicans have held numerous press conferences on the subject.
The Committee also passed House Bills 7280 and 7202. The bills will now progress to the House and Senate for debate.
The March 6 public hearing was packed with both politicians, members of the public and construction union members voicing their opposition or support for the tolling measures.
Written testimony submitted to the Transportation Committee on the day of the public hearing was extensive.