AP NEWS

Lamont’s highway toll option could raise $800M a year

February 18, 2019

Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposed option to toll all cars and trucks on Connecticut’s roadways could bring in $800 million per year, an administration official said Sunday - a total that could require tolling on most of the state’s highways.

Lamont had adamantly insisted during the campaign, and until this weekend, that he favored tolls for interstate trucks only. He changed his mind - announced in an Op-Ed published Saturday in five Hearst Connecticut Media newspapers -- only after seeing what the numbers looked like, his chief of staff, Ryan Drajewicz, told reporters Sunday.

Drajewicz spoke with the media following backlash against Lamont’s Op-Ed, in which the governor said he will propose two options: tolls for trucks only and tolls for all vehicles.

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Trucks-only tolling is estimated to bring in $45 million to $200 million, Drajewicz said, and the state Department of Transportation projects $500 million a year is needed just to repair bridges.

Even more is needed for improvements and upgrades to highways and other transportation systems. Moreover, Lamont has pledged to borrow less money than former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, and the gasoline tax is projected to decline because of fuel efficiency.

So the numbers simply didn’t add up, Drajewicz said.

“Politics had nothing to do with this,” Drajewicz said. “This was the right decision based off of the hard data. What the governor is in support of is the discussion, the back and forth with the legislature, to ensure we arrive at the best option for the state.”

He added, “If politics played a role in this we would have stayed on trucks only.”

Lamont, in his Op-Ed piece , did not spell out details of his proposals. He said he wants to see discounts for in-state drivers, such that out-of-state motorists would pay nearly 50 percent of the total.

A DOT study released in November estimated a possible $1 billion in revenue — only slightly more than Lamont’s projection — based on a scenario of 82 toll gantries on all 13 of the state’s interstate highways and four-lane roads, including Route 8, Route 9 and the Merritt and Wilbur Cross parkways.

“We’re looking to upgrade the overall transportation system here in the state….We have to be able to pay for it in a long-term sustainable way that’s not increasing our debt,” Drajewicz said, referencing Lamont’s earlier proposal for a “debt diet” to reduce state borrowing.

Critics of Lamont and opponents of tolls unleashed a firestorm on social media following Lamont’s Op-Ed. They showed anger over tolls — which they argue will place an unfair burden on Connecticut’s low- and middle-class commuters, and will drive business to other states — and they questioned Lamont’s integrity.

Many are saying Lamont knew all along he would end up proposing full-tolling - an accusation Drajewicz denied Sunday, saying he was “in the room” when the governor and aides anguished over the numbers.

Drajewicz said the governor expected the backlash, but he said Lamont held his position in good faith during the campaign.

“There’s a big difference between where you are on a campaign in the heat of a debate … and when you are in the governor’s office where you’re really taking the time … and you have access to the whole suite of facts and you’re sitting down with people,” Drajewicz said. “That’s what led to the shift and the expansion of his thinking.”

Critics including Lamont’s former opponent, Republican Bob Stefanowski, have long said it would only be a matter of time before Lamont reversed his position on tolling.

“True leaders don’t throw up ‘two options’ and wait and see which way the wind blows,” said Stefanowski, in a tweet Saturday. “Lamont made his decision not to toll autos, and Connecticut voters relied on his promise. He should not waffle now.”

Legislators likely would have discussed broad tolling regardless of Lamont’s reversal. Freshman Democratic state Sen. Alex Bergstein, of Greenwich, has already introduced legislation proposing broad tolling and an infrastructure bank that would help leverage private capital for transportation projects.

Bergstein praised the governor’s position that broad tolling should be considered.

Those proposals received similar backlash, prompting, among other things, a series of protests by the group No Tolls CT. The group will hold “its first of many protests on Feb. 23 in Stamford in front of the Stamford Government Center at 888 Washington Blvd from 12:00 P.M. until 1:30 P.M.”

Lamont also proposed over the weekend a series of new “sin taxes,” which he discussed during a taped appearance on Capitol Report, WTNH-TV8’s political affairs program that aired on Sunday.

The taxes, which will be included in his first budget proposal to the General Assembly on Wednesday, include sugary drinks, electronic cigarettes and plastic bags, as well as deposits on alcoholic beverages.

“This isn’t about generating revenue so much as changing behavior,” Drajewicz said Sunday.

kkrasselt@hearstmediact.com; 203-842-2563; @kaitlynkrasselt