Toll calculus: Lamont can't figure it out

It appears Gov. Ned Lamont did not think this thing through.

Before signing off on the increase in the minimum wage to $15, before putting signature to the paid family leave bill, before making any number of deals, the governor needed to make it clear to his fellow Democrats in the legislature that he first needed them to step up and make a difficult choice. He needed them to approve a plan to implement tolls in the state.

That is the kind of realpolitik that Lamont is not good at. He instead is leaning on the logical argument that generating toll revenues is the only practical way to pay for upgrading and maintaining the state’s transportation infrastructure, vital to the state’s economic future.

Good luck with that.

Lamont, his Department of Transportation Commissioner Joseph Giulietti, and Office of Policy and Management Secretary Melissa McCaw have been lobbying editorial writers, yours truly included, local chambers of commerce and any group willing to listen on why tolls make sense. And they do, even though no one likes the idea of paying to use roads we can all now traverse for free.

Starting in fiscal year 2024 when a toll system could be in place, revenues from tolls, the car sales tax and existing gas taxes could generate the $1.2 billion annually necessary to make needed investments to upgrade our highways and mass transit systems and keep things in good repair, according to the DOT and OPM.

Tolls would collect user fees from the out-of-state drivers who, unless they gas up in Connecticut, now pass through the state without contributing anything to the upkeep of its highways. An estimated 40 percent of the toll revenue would come from these out-of-state vehicles.

The Republican alternative — borrow the money — makes no practical sense. Not only would it exacerbate the state’s indebtedness, it would continue placing almost the entire burden of paying for highway maintenance and improvements on state taxpayers.

It does, however, make good political sense. Republicans have made the calculation that if Democrats, with their strong majorities in the Senate and House, want to implement tolls they can fully own the unpopular idea. Whether tolls are implemented or not, expect Republicans to run against them in the next couple of election cycles.

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, and Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven, have talked of putting some kind of package together — perhaps fewer than the roughly 50 electronic toll gantries now envisioned and perhaps offsetting tax cuts — that can gain some Republican votes. Knowing a few Republicans are onboard would make some reluctant Democratic lawmakers feel better about extending their political necks.

I just don’t see it happening.

That means Lamont needs to get enough Democrats to step up and make the tough vote. And if not now, when? In 2020, Blue State Connecticut will be heading into a presidential election with Donald Trump at the top of the ticket. Democratic turnout should be strong, disdain for the Republican Trump helping the party’s cause. There will be no better time to weather the fallout from a toll vote.

But in a special session, Lamont lacks the political levers to gain votes. He cannot provide or withhold his support for this or that legislation. His “debt diet” largely takes bonding for local pet projects off the table. And with legislative campaigns largely publicly financed in Connecticut, the governor can’t win votes by promising to fundraise for particular candidates.

Lamont doesn’t have the votes. If he did, we’d have that special summer session by now. Unless the governor can figure out the right political calculation, all those transportation calculations will do him little good.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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