(TNS) — Nearly a year after his attempt to bring trucks-only highway tolls crashed and burned in the Connecticut General Assembly, Gov. Ned Lamont is still trying to figure out how to otherwise fund sorely needed transportation infrastructure projects.
A lot depends on the Biden administration and the willingness of Lamont's fellow Democrats who control the state House and Senate. Last week's congressional-aid stimulus package includes $344 million for transportation projects in Connecticut, under three separate programs for highways, airports and mass transit.
Another partial answer could be the state's recent agreement to join a regional transportation-and-climate pact, which needs the approval of the general assembly, but could bring in about $90 million to $117 million a year between 2023 and 2032, as the state attempts to reduce vehicular carbon emissions to improve public health and battle climate change.
Lamont's budget staff in the Office of Policy and Management recently reported that the state's Special Transportation Fund (STF) will end the fiscal year on June 30 with only about $108 million, down from $320 million on July 1, 2019 and just a fraction of the hundreds of millions needed to fund the major infrastructure projects Lamont wants.
The STF is on track to go broke in 2024, due to rising debt. Gasoline taxes that feed the fund are also declining amid less driving in the pandemic and the increase in electric cars.
Speaking to reporters recently, the usually upbeat governor revealed some bitterness a year after majority Democrats failed to back trucks-only highway tolls.
"They weren't just afraid to go for tolls, they were afraid to go for even their own plan and that was what was frustrating for me," said Lamont, who spent most of 2020 running state government and the response to the coronavirus pandemic, by himself, under emergency authority.
"You're hired to make up your mind," Lamont said. "Here's a problem, let's find a way to solve it." Lamont called the regional Transportation Climate Initiative (TCI), which Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C. joined with Connecticut this week and which other states in the regional are supporting, if not yet joining, is one of several things the state needs to fund transportation projects.
"I've got to take this to the legislature, talk to [the] Transportation [Committee], talk to leadership on both sides of the aisle," Lamont said. "It doesn't solve world peace, it doesn't fix our transportation fund, but it's a start. It's a start that also has a clean environmental component to it and it doesn't put us at a competitive disadvantage with our neighbors, so I'd like to think it's something they'll consider. This is one partial solution for the hole in our transportation fund, which we've been trying to focus on for a while."
Lamont noted the instant opposition recently from Republican lawmakers who charged that it would hike retail prices for gasoline.
"There are some politicians who think what pro-business and any business is what lobbyists tell them, but I think people in the business community know this is an important initiative and we can have real economic activity coming from it," Lamont said.
Last week, a day after the TCI agreement was announced, prompting gasoline retailers and conservative politicians to predict five-cent to 17-cent per-gallon price hikes in motor fuels, Katie Dykes, the commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, stressed that retail prices of gasoline regularly swing by five cents or more per gallon.
Connecticut's spot on the eastern seaboard, with all the pollution of the nation sweeping from the west, make the state "the tailpipe of the nation," Dykes said.
While the biennial budget-setting session starts on Jan. 6, Lamont has until mid-February to propose a new tax-and-spend package. He said a lot will depend on what President Joe Biden can persuade Congress to do, with or without Democratic control of the U.S. Senate.
"I think it's a little early," Lamont said in response to a question on how he will stanch the bleeding in the transportation fund. "But the budget is coming into clarity as the federal government figures a little more of what they are going to do and what support they are going to offer. They are going to be providing funding for transportation, they are going to be providing funding for education, they are going to be providing some funding for vaccinations and testing. That all will impact our final budget priorities that we'll probably start laying out in the new year."
State Sen. Carlo Leone, D- Stamford, co-chairman of the Transportation Committee, said Monday that he hasn't yet spoken to other leaders and the governor. But he stressed the need for the regional transportation initiative to invest any revenue into the rapidly dwindling STF.
"The issue is real, and there are real risks that projects will be canceled, let alone started," Leone said. "And transportation is really the key to the economy."
Lori Brown, executive director of the League of Conservation Voters, said the climate initiative is a way to help clean the air, curb transit-related emissions that impact cities like New Haven and Bridgeport, with major travel corridors and high instances of asthma and other respiratory ailments.
"It can be customized to fit our state and will provide critical funding to invest in our ailing transportation infrastructure which is directly linked to jobs and our economic future," Brown said.
Ashley Zane, government affairs associate for the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, said Monday, said the organization will remain supportive of a bipartisan approach to ensure the stability of the STF, starting with money that has in the past been diverted to the General Fund but should have remained in the STF.
"We would be supportive of a plan that includes responsible bonding and general fund transfers, as well as creating a plan to prioritize projects to prevent these projects from sitting on dockets or being delayed, which only adds to the cost," Zane said, adding that the CBIA is currently member gauging support for TCI.
"The plan is pretty divisive among our membership with some supporting it and others concerned about the increased cost of doing business," Zane said. "One of the aspects that's concerning for our membership is the increased cost of fuel, which has yet to be given an actual amount and in various reports, ranges from 5 to 38 cents."
But Joe DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, which represents cities and towns in the State Capitol, said Monday that the organization is working on a wide-ranging, holistic approach to the needs of the state, including transportation.
"The reality is Connecticut's challenges are not going to be fixed in a piecemeal process," DeLong said in a phone interview, stressing that the Special Transportation Fund is just as important as the Educational Cost Sharing formula used to support public schools. "What bothers me is that no one want to approach these things from a comprehensive standpoint."
DeLong said that the CCM report, expected in late February or early March, will propose better approaches to regionalizing shared services and supporting revenue diversification. For that, lawmakers will have to come together and compromise in "a grand bargain."
For that, the traditional political divide, between lawmakers who want to cut spending and services and those who want to raise taxes on the wealthiest residents will have to be bridged.
"To be frank, I haven't see that type of holistic leadership approach to these issues," DeLong said. "I tend to believe there's something in the middle there. The government has to be fiscally responsible and sustainable, and right now we are not."
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