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Editorial: Lamont must map out toll discourse

February 19, 2019

The toll debate has been percolating for a few years now. As it gets ready to boil, someone needs to turn down the heat.

The debate is cast as pro-toll vs. anti-toll. In Connecticut, that can also be shorthanded as Democrats vs. Republicans.

It’s not that black-and-white. First of all, as much as toll proponents like to point to support from constituents, no one really wants tolls.

Republicans carry most of the weight on the anti-toll side of the see-saw. They eviscerated former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy when he ordered a $10 million tolls study in July. A notable outlier among Democrats has been newly minted Gov. Ned Lamont.

Until now.

On Saturday, Lamont published an op-ed (“A path going forward”) in Hearst Connecticut Media newspapers in which he suggested the state’s economic picture looks even bleaker under the gold dome than it did when he was in the private sector.

Lamont conceded tolls must be considered. Criticism that he flip-flopped were about as shocking as midday traffic but must not become a distraction.

It’s time to talk about tolls.

Lamont and what he described as “my co-equal branch of government” can only get out of this traffic jam by working together.

The best place to start is for Lamont to share the information that steered him in a new direction.

When he delivers his first state budget Wednesday, he must show where else he plans to find money. Hitting the tolls panic button in his first 100 days is akin to taking out a second mortgage to avoid cutting personal expenses.

The state of the highway system in Connecticut is not up for debate — it’s terrible. Commuters regularly pencil in an hour or more to make it 20 miles up the highway at certain times of day. Repairs are overdue, most upgrades far out of reach.

The high gas tax doesn’t cover costs, and intake is going down. That’s a good thing - less money from the gas tax means people are spending less on gasoline, either by increasing efficiency or cutting back on driving. We encourage both trends.

But the money has to come from somewhere.

Many residents in border towns contribute to highway funds of New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey. From their perspective, there is already an injustice to commuters in the opposite direction getting a free ride.

Lamont has talked about a discount for in-state drivers. That’s a necessity and would have to come at the point of payment, not in the form of a rebate weeks or months later. Too many people are barely getting by, and an extra few dollars for the privilege of commuting will make a real difference. The state can’t ignore this segment of the population.

The governor clearly sees a different horizon for Connecticut than he did a few months ago. We need convincing too. In the days to come, he’ll get his chance to persuade toll opponents to stop pumping the brakes.