Connecticut's transportation infrastructure is fast becoming a center stage issue for the 2018 legislative session, which begins Wednesday, February 7.
Amid legislative calls for gasoline tax increases and House Democratic leaders pledging support for legislation authorizing tolls, Governor Dannel Malloy outlined his administration's plan to shore up the state's Special Transportation Fund.
Malloy released his plan during a Jan. 31 press conference at the Capitol, just weeks after postponing $4.3 billion in transportation projects following reports the STF was nearing insolvency.
He called for a seven-cent gas hike over four years, installing tolls beginning fiscal 2023, slapping a $3 fee on every new tire sold, and accelerating by two years a plan dedicating 0.5% of the sales tax on new cars to the STF.
"Investment in transportation is investment in Connecticut's future," Malloy said.
"But for decades, our state has chronically underfunded our roads, bridges, tunnels, and rails, and as a result, our infrastructure consistently ranks among the worse in the nation.
"Without new revenues this year, we face a transportation cliff. We will be forced to make draconian cutbacks, affecting even routine maintenance.
"We can no longer afford to wait—it's time for action."
Malloy's proposal was met with opposition from Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Len Fasano, who said that it would be a mistake to implement tolls without a clear and transparent plan and without a strategy for prioritizing transportation projects.
Fasano and House GOP leader Themis Klarides called for transportation projects to be prioritized within the state's overall bonding projects before seeking new or increased revenues.
Fasano said lawmakers need to know how many tolls will be installed, their location, the cost per mile, and the cost to construct and maintain them.
"Legislators, whether they think this is a good idea or not, have an obligation to their constituency to find out the facts and determine if it works," he said.
Persistent legislative raids on the STF are a key factor behind the fund's pending insolvency. In addition, the state gas tax fails to generate enough revenue due to increased fuel efficiency of newer vehicles.
Persistent legislative raids are a key factor behind the Special Transportation Fund's pending insolvency.
The fund's main revenue source is the gas tax. However, the state budget office estimated last year that the fund would be insolvent by 2022.
That forced the need to find alternate funding sources.
"Overall, the implementation of a growing, predictable income stream to the fund will enable the effective planning and delivery of the quality transportation system Connecticut’s economy depends on," said state Department of Transportation commissioner James Redeker.
Voters will be asked in a November referendum to decide on a constitutional amendment prohibiting lawmakers using the STF for anything other than transportation purposes.
Despite the lack of a specific plan to institute tolls, a state Office of Legislative Research report released last month suggests electronic tolls that would read vehicle transponders as they drive beneath overhead gantries at normal speed.
As other states do, the system would photograph license plates of vehicles without a transponder and mail a bill to the registered owner.
The report found Connecticut could get federal approval for tolls but would have to adopt a congestion-pricing model with higher fees during peak traffic times.
The report cited a 2016 study by Malloy's Transportation Finance Panel that examined tolling options along several state roads and interstate highways, including:
- I-95 from Rhode Island to New York
- I-84 from New York to Hartford
- Connecticut River Bridges in the Hartford area
- Route 2 in East Hartford and Glastonbury
- Wilbur Cross and Merritt parkways
The study discussed peak toll rates of 50 cents and off-peak of 25 cents. It cited a possible round-trip cost of $6 from New Haven to New York during peak hours, and $4.20 during off-peak, although the study considered several scenarios for pricing and toll locations.
Critical Questions Need Answers
CBIA has long called on Connecticut to repair and revamp its transportation system. In fact, it is one of CBIA's legislative priorities for 2018.
Connecticut’s infrastructure has needed costly repairs for years, and funding sources have become increasingly unreliable.
There is a general consensus among most CBIA members that additional funding for transportation is necessary.
"Connecticut's businesses rely on the stability of our transportation infrastructure to move the people and product necessary to fuel our economy," said CBIA vice president Brian Flaherty.
"The legislature needs to dedicate and protect a sustainable, affordable transportation funding stream.
"The key is in the details. What is the infrastructure plan? What type of tolling system are we being asked to support?"
"We cannot support something as controversial as tolls without having seen the full plan."