Connecticut Governor Focuses on Transportation in Annual Address
By Christopher Keating
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, giving his State of the State address that opened his second term Wednesday, said the state's traffic congestion is "unacceptable" and demands a bold new approach toward improving roads and railroad lines.
Calling for a "transformation," Malloy said he was seeking to "establish a collective vision for the next 30 years" that would provide Connecticut with "a best-in-class transportation system."
As part of his proposal, Malloy called for legislation creating a "lock box" to safeguard money set aside for transportation projects so that it could be used only for projects like improving highways and bridges.
The state has a Special Transportation Fund, but through the years it has been routinely raided by governors and the Democratic-controlled legislature for other purposes.
"Today, I am proposing that Connecticut create a secure transportation lock box that will ensure every single dollar raised for transportation is spent on transportation, now and into the future," Malloy said in a statement that drew the most applause of his speech at the state Capitol.
"No gimmicks. No diversions," he said. "And we should include a covenant with bond holders and all people of Connecticut to ensure that money set aside for transportation projects is only used for that purpose. Send me a bill that accomplishes these goals, and I will sign it immediately.
"Until that legislation is passed and signed, I will veto any attempt to levy additional sources of new revenue for transportation."
During a 16-minute speech that was interrupted by applause more than 15 times, Malloy said that he would provide more details about transportation funding in next month's budget address on Feb. 18. Both Malloy and top legislative leaders say they are open to the concept of installing tolls on Connecticut highways, but no formal proposals have been announced.
In his speech, Malloy said that necessary improvements include "widening I-95 statewide and fixing its entrance and exit ramps," along with improving railroad service in the Naugatuck Valley.
He noted that the improvements would be expensive and could not be funded simply by raising the gasoline tax.
"While traffic congestion is getting worse, more efficient cars mean that our gas taxes will soon fail to cover current investments, let alone the new ones we need to make. The budget I present to you next month will include first steps toward funding a long-term transportation vision. But subsequent steps will need to be taken in the years beyond that."
Some Republicans and Democrats said they largely agreed with the concept, but they still wanted more details on exactly how Malloy's plan would work. The Connecticut Business and Industry Association, the state's largest business lobby, hailed the idea, saying that it is "long overdue" to improve transportation in the state.
Some legislators have been calling for a lock box in various forms, saying that tax money should no longer be diverted from transportation.
"We raid the transportation fund too much," said Rep. David Alexander, a moderate Democrat from Enfield.
Alexander, in his second term, pledged to sponsor a bill this year that will prevent any money from being transferred out of the Special Transportation Fund.
House Republican leader Themis Klarides said that legislators cannot trust themselves regarding the money because they have been moving it between accounts for years.
"The idea is a wonderful idea. I think it's something we should look at," Klarides said. "We don't trust ourselves, so it's like we have to lock it up to make sure that nobody takes it."
Under multiple governors and legislatures, money has been moved into and out of the Special Transportation Fund, which is separate from the state's much larger general fund.
"That's always a major player in the shell game," Klarides said. "It's like a dam with all these holes in it, and you keep plugging it and plugging it and taking some more from one part and then the other part blows up."
Klarides said the state still has problems despite the largest tax increase in state history that was enacted by Malloy and the Democratic-controlled legislature in 2011.
"You raise taxes, saying that's going to solve the problem," Klarides said. "Then the problem is not solved, and now you say, 'Oh, there's pie on my face.' Then you have to take it from other places. We move the shells around, and we keep moving them, and here we are again."
The lock box has became a hot topic at the Capitol. In recent days, lawmakers and others have been talking about the possibility of tolls and potentially setting aside the money where it could not be touched.
Michael J. Riley, head of the association representing truckers in Connecticut for nearly 30 years, said history has proved that legislators will sweep funds from various accounts to balance the state budget in difficult economic times.
"Based on what we have seen in Connecticut, a discussion of tolls should not even begin until the people of Connecticut adopt a constitutional amendment to protect that revenue," Riley said. "The state has proven time and time again that you can't trust them to protect their transportation funds. We can't even talk about it. The four-letter word cannot even be uttered until the people of the state are confident that the money collected by tolls is spent on transportation."
Nothing short of a constitutional amendment will be sufficient, he said.
"I don't know what a lock box means," Riley said. "I know what a constitutional amendment means. It sounds to me like lock boxes have keys, and the legislature can open the box. A lock box can be opened by any legislature any time it wants."
Senate Republican leader Leonard Fasano backed Malloy's concept, noting that lawmakers passed a bill two years ago that specifies just that, although the law has not taken effect. But Fasano said a lock box might not be enough to prevent lawmakers from raiding transportation funds in the years ahead.
"We need something more than that -- a constitutional amendment that says we're not to touch it because we sweep every available fund when we're broke," Fasano said.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff of Norwalk described the governor's transportation vision as "like music to my ears."
An effective network of roads and public transit is the state's economic engine, "so I'm extremely excited about this," he said.
When asked about tolls, Duff responded, "That's not on the table at the moment."
Sen. Rob Kane, a Watertown Republican, said it was ironic that Malloy called for a lock box because his administration had shifted money out of the transportation fund.
"Rather than build a busway to nowhere that nobody is going to take, we should be fixing the I-84 interchange in Waterbury," Kane said. "We should be fixing I-95 in Norwalk and Stamford and a host of other projects that should be done."
House Speaker Brendan Sharkey supports tolls, saying that improvements cannot be funded exclusively through bonding and the gasoline tax.
"I think we have to adopt tolls in the state of Connecticut," Sharkey told reporters after Malloy's speech. "I think we have to relieve that burden of the gas tax that currently our taxpayers bear, to the exclusion of everyone else who drives through our state. It's just patently unfair. And it also is an unreliable income source because ... fuel efficiencies are going to drive down the amount of revenue we can collect."
Courant staff writer Daniela Altimari contributed to this story.
(c)2015 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)