While political debate over Connecticut highway tolling remains at a standstill, Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration warned about federal backlash over a state-of-good-repair backlog.
Washington has a bull’s-eye on the state, according to the governor and his transportation secretary, Joseph Giulietti.
“The warning light’s on the dashboard,” Lamont said in Hartford at a press conference laced with auto metaphors. “And we would be subject to some penalties if we don’t [keep] our roads and bridges in good repair.”
Lamont, a first-term Democrat, and top legislators from both parties huddled Wednesday, in their first significant meeting since passing a $43.2 billion biennial budget on June 6. They remained at loggerheads over how to catch up on an estimated $800 million state-of-good-repair backlog.
Even a special session Lamont is seeking to resume tolling is still in question, though separately, lawmakers plan some overtime this summer to discuss a bonding package related to school construction and other local projects.
Giuletti said roughly 85% of Connecticut’s highways and bridges are in state of good repair, but that number would plunge without a transportation funding boost.
“We’re not talking about right at this moment,” Giuletti said. “We’re talking about the 10-year projections based on what we see coming at us.”
Federal action, he said, could range from strict funding provisions to a slash in aid.
Connecticut’s political divide is a roadblock to a resolution over tolls.
“There’s a lot of pent-up history in that room, and a lot of folks who feel skeptical about government failing to keep up with its word,” Lamont said.
Lamont’s latest proposal to lawmakers would lower taxes and credits on the E-ZPass toll payment system for low- and middle-income residents. His original working draft called for up to 50 tolling gantries on interstates 84, 91, 95 and parts of state Route 15.
Democrats, who hold 90-60 and 22-14 advantages in the House of Representatives and Senate, respectively, are divided over tolling.
Republicans unanimously oppose the tolls.
A GOP plan would require the state to reserve a set amount of general obligation bonds for transportation priorities, beginning with a $704 million commitment in calendar year 2020.
It would also preserve special tax obligation bonds dedicated to transportation and re-establish the Transportation Strategy Board to work alongside the state Department of Transportation to assess proposed projects.
“No, we don’t support tolls, period,” said Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven.
Fasano said the Lamont administration glossed over particulars on Wednesday. “They just threw out a lot of numbers very quickly, like the Federal Express guy, very fast.
“You can’t do infrastructure in the state of Connecticut the way they do it in California,” Fasano said. “Connecticut is divided among east, west, north and south, with Hartford and New Haven the central points.”
Connecticut removed tolls from I-95 and selected bridges in 1985, two years after a crash at the Stratford toll gate killed seven persons. Tolling advocates say the electronic gantries of today are safer.
Border New York, Rhode Island and Massachusetts all have tolling.
According to S&P Global Ratings, as bond and federal funds for capital expenses decline, states are weighing new revenue sources for infrastructure spending, notably on transportation.
“Tolling is also part of the conversation in statehouses, where entirely new methods of taxation to fund infrastructure needs are under consideration,” S&P said.
Moody’s Investors Service rates Connecticut GOs A1, while Fitch Ratings rates them A-plus. Kroll Bond Ratings Agency assigns its AA-minus rating.
Kroll assigns a negative outlook, while outlooks from Moody’s and Fitch are stable.