Lamont gives up on Connecticut truck tolling

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After a week of more bizarre turns over highway tolling, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont called off his trucks-only initiative.

Instead, Lamont intends to bond for $200 million annually to fund highway infrastructure needs, he told reporters late Wednesday at the state capitol in Hartford.

Out-of-state trucks will continue getting a free ride through Connecticut after a truck-tolling plan died in the state legislature.

Doubts over whether the majority Democrats could pass the bill in the Senate, the specter of procedural oddities in the General Assembly and a Republican threat of a 30-hour filibuster marked the latest twists in a tussle that has long divided the state.

Now, a governor who last year called for a "debt diet" is faced with borrowing $200 million more every year.

"I hate to do it this way. It’s bonding in place of other things that are priorities but right now there’s no other option on the table," said Lamont, a first-term Democrat. "We both agree, Republicans and Democrats, that we need $19 [billion] or $20 billion. That includes $200 million additional to what we had before, so I’m going to do that out of bonding."

Lamont's latest bill, after a call for tolling passenger cars hit a wall, called for levies on heavy trucks at 12 selected bridges on interstates 84, 91, 95, 395 and 684, and state Route 8. While his proposed transportation bond bill remains at $19 billion over 10 years, tolling would have covered an estimated net of roughly $173 million per year.

Tolling proponents have said revenue from targeting out-of-state drivers could ease pressure on state debt. Connecticut's net tax-supported debt equaled $6,802 per capita, the highest nationwide for debt medians, Moody's Investors Service said in July.

Earlier this week, top lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled legislature, uncertain over which chamber should go first, were prepared to traipse an uncharted path whereby the House of Representatives and Senate would have simultaneously debated separate bills authorizing six toll gantries apiece.

Then, in what local media likened to a hostage swap, the chambers would have exchanged bills for another synchronized vote.

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, accused Democrats of "bastardizing the system."

The toll bill is still on the table. Democrats control the Senate 22-14 and the House 91-60. They could lose four Senate votes and still pass a bill with Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, a Democrat, voting to break a tie.

Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven, and Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said in a statement late Wednesday that they are still prepared to vote on the bill next week.

A frustrated Lamont didn't buy it.

"Don’t say I can’t make up my mind, I need another week, I need another week. I’ve heard that for a year,” he said. "I've lost patience."

Fasano said toll debate has fatigued the state and distracted it from other pressing matters.

“That has sucked the oxygen out of this building for almost two years now, and there’s a lot of legislative business that we must do," he told reporters. "Everyone waiting [with] baited breath whether there are votes to support tolls or not has taken away from other business in this capital.”

The state's needs are vast, according to Mitchell Moss, director of New York University's Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management.

"Connecticut has a genuine need for revenue along with so many other challenges," Moss said.

The state removed tolls from the Connecticut Turnpike — I-95 between New York and Rhode Island — in 1985, two years after a crash at the Stratford toll gate killed seven persons. It gradually phased out bridge tolls over the following four years.

"What they're trying to do is put a tax on interstate commerce," Moss said of the truck plan. "By taxing trucks, the Connecticut politicians are trying to tax out-of-state road users."

Trucks-only tolling — with the latest iteration a variant of a Lamont campaign talking point in 2018— runs legal risk, given that trucking associations have sued neighboring Rhode Island for approving a similar system.

"The chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court [John Roberts] has a deep and powerful grasp of interstate commerce, which he showed in his interpretations of the healthcare act," Moss said. "That changes the game a lot.

"Rhode Island and Connecticut are boutique states that connect Boston and New York," Moss said. "Rhode Island is a wonderful place and so is Connecticut, but the commerce is in Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey."

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