HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut lawmakers voted Wednesday to advance legislation that could lead to electronic tolls on some highways, but it remained unclear whether 2019 is the year tolling legislation will finally pass the General Assembly.
During a closely watched vote, Republican and some Democratic members of the Transportation Committee voiced varied concerns about the three tolling bills up for vote and how their constituents would be impacted. Each bill cleared along party lines, 23-13, with Democrats in support and Republicans in opposition.
“At the end of the day, we’re talking about some of these people’s bottom line,” said Rep. Travis Simms, D-Norwalk, who voted in favor of the legislation Wednesday, but reserved the right to vote no later in the session.
Each bill awaits further action in either the House of Representatives or Senate. But lawmakers said they expect various parts of each bill, which would toll both cars and trucks on Interstates 95, 91, 84 and sections of Route 15 possibly as soon as 2023, will be crafted into one cohesive proposal. Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont’s tolling proposal was among the bills that cleared the committee.
“At the end of the day, it’s about narrowing to come up with the best plan possible, if one exists, to move forward,” said Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, the committee’s co-chairman.
Opponents vowed to step up the political pressure on lawmakers in hopes of derailing tolls yet again. Patrick Sasser, founder of the grassroots organization Say No to CT Tolls, said the focus will now be on legislators in districts where they “barely have made it” in the last election.
“We’re going to start hammering on the areas where the working class, where this really affects them. This is going to be our next movement after today’s vote,” said Sasser, whose group has collected more than 86,000 petitions opposing tolls. He said his group plans to hold protests, knock on doors and educate people about the legislation. He said many taxpayers don’t realize the extent of the proposals, which involve dozens of tolling gantries.
The final number and locations of gantries remain unsettled and the state would still need federal approval before tolling could occur. The various plans include discounts for state residents and off-peak drivers.
Whatever the final bill looks like, advocates stressed how Connecticut needs a new, reliable revenue stream dedicated to addressing the state’s aging transportation infrastructure, which everyone appeared to agree must be fixed.
“We cannot wait on the feds to act in order to come in and save the day, so to speak,” Leone said, adding how Connecticut has a “desperate need” for the new transportation revenue. “We cannot allow our public safety to be at risk, for bridges to fall or for someone to get hurt.”
Leone noted how out-of-state drivers help pick up the tab, estimating 30-to-40 percent of the revenue would come from out-of-state drivers, a figure questioned by some Republicans.
Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, complained that lawmakers still don’t know what they’re actually voting on.
“There is not a concrete proposal in this bill,” she said. “I don’t know how many tolls I’m voting for, where they’re going to go, how many of them, what they will cost, what they cost people to drive through, how they will be priced, what it cost to operate them, let alone install them and what exactly will they bring in.”
The issue of tolling has been debated in the state legislature for numerous years. Proponents are hopeful this could be the year something passes, especially considering Lamont has been an outspoken supporter of tolling.
On Wednesday, the new governor urged members of the business community to “stand up” for the concept, arguing that transportation infrastructure is crucial to improving the state’s economy.
Lamont, who took office in January, had campaigned on truck-only tolls during the recent election. But he is now pushing for the wider-ranging tolls, arguing that truck-only tolls would not generate enough revenue. His administration estimates truck-only tolls would raise $200 million annually while tolls on cars and trucks could generate about $800 million annually.
Lamont on Wednesday also noted how a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit Tuesday over Rhode Island’s new truck tolls, finding that the court lacked jurisdiction and the case should be brought in the state court system. Lamont had hoped to get some clarity about the constitutionality of truck-only tolls from that case.
“I think this is going to be locked up in the courts in Rhode Island now for years to come,” he said. “That doesn’t help us.”