Lamont transportation group calls for tolls, hiring, coordination

December 19, 2018

A passel of progressive ideas came out of Gov.-elect Ned Lamont’s working group on transportation Wednesday morning and along with them, the group called for a “tolling authority” in Lamont’s first six months in office.

The tolling, in the group’s vision, would include all cars and trucks — not just long-haul trucks, as Lamont called for in his campaign.

Everyone in the group agreed on the need for tolls except one: New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart, who cast the sole vote against broad tolling, sources said. Stewart was not at the meeting at Bradley International Airport where the group presented its ideas.

The group didn’t offer any specifics, but also called for a possible increase in the gasoline tax.

“We have to fix our roads,” said James Travers, bureau chief for transportation, traffic and parking for the city of Stamford, a member of the transition group for transportation. “Our investment in roadways is beyond anything that can be sustained with existing revenues.”

“We have been lucky that we haven’t has a Mianus River Bridge collapse,” Travers said, referring to the I-95 bridge collapse that killed four in 1984.

The tolls issue, along with gas taxes, will almost certainly wash over a broad and important discussion about ways to improve Connecticut’s public transit and transportation systems. Some of it, members of the working committee said, could save money in the long run and make the need for added revenues less severe.

But critics responded quickly, starting with Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven, the Senate Republican leader. He issued a statement that covered many of the proposals by the 15 Lamont transition committees presenting their ideas this week.

“I’m trying very hard to give Gov.-elect Lamont the benefit of the doubt and not rush to judgement,” Fasano said in the written release. “However, the policy proposals that have emerged from many of his transition team meetings, including today’s proposal to toll all cars and increase the gas tax, are extremely concerning. These ideas look like Dan Malloy 2.0 and then some. They include massive tax increases, massive increases in spending and massive new promises - at a time when our state cannot even uphold the promises we have already made to residents.”

That, of course, will dominate the debates at the state Capitol starting with the legislative session and Lamont’s inauguration on Jan. 9. And the unfortunate result is that amid shrill arguments about money — obviously important — Connecticut will lose ground in its slow move toward creating rational transportation systems that help the economy.

For example, the committee called for speeding up the hiring process at the state Department of Transportation, where some 500 jobs are funded but not filled. That’s partly by design, as the administration of outgoing Gov. Dannel P. Malloy — attacks on his spending notwithstanding — has held a hard line on hiring, reducing the state workforce by thousands of jobs.

Not filling jobs saves money in the short term but some experts believe the state would spend less on big transportation projects, and get them done faster, if it brought more design and engineering work back in-house to the DOT.

In a draft report that’s not yet public, the transportation group also named several innovations designed to move the state away from one-person in one car going to and from everywhere, toward a greener system. That includes a strategic plan for transit-oriented development — the idea of coordinating zoning and other efforts around less energy-intensive ways of moving people around.

To that end, the committee called for a new “transportation systems working group” to help bubble up good ideas and to coordinate efforts across state agencies. For example, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection may work on land remediation at a place that could work for development that advances train transit along the Metro North route — but there’s no formal way for those projects to align.

That working group would also have a “business advisory subcommittee,” which could, in addition to offering ideas, help come up with private money.

And the group called for a quasi-public “Transit Corridor Development Authority” to help development along transit lines.

The group is dominated by Democrats and municipal and transportation officials including co-chairman Kevin Dillon, head of the Connecticut Airport Authority. He spoke about expanding the reach of the Connecticut Aviation Authority, perhaps to include oversight of Tweed-New Haven Airport, the better to coordinate if Tweed were to expand commercial service.

“We’ve been trying to be helpful to Tweed,” Dillon said, in that airport’s efforts to reverse a statutory limit on the length of its runway. But he added, “This market is not large enough to have multiple airports going off on their own” with commercial airline service.

That could presage a turf battle within a turf battle, as Tweed — which badly needs more routes if the central shoreline is to grow — fights the legislature for the right to expand.

But tolls and taxes will emerge as the hot-button issue and all the ideas about Connecticut finally joining the 21st century are destined to be lost in that din — unless they can happen at little or no cost. In philosophy, the group advances a central concept articulated by Rep. Tony Guerrero, D-Rocky Hill, who lost in his bid for the state Senate.

“For every dollar that you spend on transportation infrastructure, the return to the economy is double that,” said Guerrero, a leading proponent of tolls.

As Melissa Kaplan-Macey, co-chair of the group and a vice president and Connecticut director at the tri-state Regional Plan Association, put it, “All these great ideas, how are we going to pay for it?”

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