Malloy finds bipartisan support for transportation goals

January 14, 2015

By Mike Savino

Article as it appeared in the Journal Inquirer

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s call Wednesday for bipartisan cooperation and an overhaul to the state’s transportation system received praise from legislators of both parties, business leaders, and union representatives.

All factions agreed that the state has neglected its infrastructure for far too long, leaving it in such a poor state that it has hurt both economic development and everyday life.

Democrats expressed optimism that such strong comments from the governor would become the push the state needs to address its outdated highways, rundown local roads, and disconnected public transportation.

“I think anytime the governor puts himself behind it, it certainly gives it much more momentum than if a legislator did it,” state Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, said.

Republicans also agreed on the need for an overhaul, but expressed concern that Malloy and the legislature need to ensure that all revenue generated by transportation taxes goes toward that purpose.

“We have funding for transportation that was never put into the transportation fund,” state Rep. Timothy Ackert, R-Coventry, said.

Malloy said during his State of the State address that an overhaul eventually would require additional revenue sources as various factors cause income from the gas tax to fall short of Connecticut’s transportation needs.

But he also vowed to veto any efforts to create new revenue sources for transportation, such as tolls, without the creation of a “lock box” to ensure that all funding goes to the state’s infrastructure.

It seemed everyone, and not just legislators, was in agreement Wednesday that such a measure is necessary before the General Assembly considers tolls or other new sources of income.

Joseph Brennan, president of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, said that putting off the conversation “leads to a lack of confidence” after the state for years diverted transportation funds to cover operating costs.

“Unless and until we get that done, it’s hard to have any other discussions about priority projects, funding for those projects, things like that,” Brennan said.

There are various ways to create such a lock box, including a constitutional amendment or a bonding covenant, but legislators said they would need to examine options first.

Some legislators said the state needs a secure funding mechanism that forces policymakers to be more responsible with tax revenue.

“We need to learn to live within our means and not spend, spend, spend,” said Rep. David Alexander, D-Enfield. “That’s the first avenue of approach to solve the problem.”

Sen. Tony Guglielmo, R-Stafford, agreed, saying the state first should look at what it can afford with current revenues before considering new sources, borrowing, or other measures.

He also said the legislature should examine each budget line to determine what can be cut and what is necessary, comparing it to the way a typically household handles its finances.

“I don’t think we’ve ever looked at a budget that way,” he said.

Republicans voiced more opposition to tolls, with Senate Minority Leader Leonard Fasano, of North Haven, saying he was flat out opposed to them, unless other taxes are eliminated.

But some Democrats, including House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, of Hamden, said tolls are “inevitable.”

He said the state’s current gas tax is both “inherently unreliable” as fuel efficiency improves and fuel prices fluctuate, and also “inherently unfair” to Connecticut residents.

Others agreed that Connecticut’s current revenue structure results in residents paying higher gas taxes because out-of-state travelers don’t pay tolls and can usually get through the state without stopping for fuel.

But legislators weren’t sure how tolls would work, saying they would need to discuss options.

Still, everyone appeared in agreement that the state needed not only to improve its infrastructure, but do so with a comprehensive plan.

“I’d love to see us create a plan, you know, a true plan that says, ‘This is where Connecticut’s going to go in five years, 10 years, 30 years,’ whatever it is,” Ackert said.

And such a plan likely will need to be comprehensive if it’s going to win support from all sides.

Brennan said CBIA members have been clamoring for transportation upgrades for years, and not just to the roadways.

He said the association supports the state’s decision to create authorities for its airports and seaports in recent years, and wants Connecticut’s economy to use both more often.

Malloy also called for the expansion of other forms of transportation, including rail lines, and Alexander said he wants to ensure a stop in Enfield as the state provides train service from New Haven to Springfield.

Connecticut AFL-CIO Executive Secretary Treasurer Lori J. Pelletier said construction projects would create jobs.

“Rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure has never been more important,” she said. “And with this call for increased investment, we can put thousands of unemployed Connecticut workers back to work to literally rebuild our state.”

Others, such as Rep. Mark Tweedie, R-Manchester, said transportation problems could cause people to leave the state.

He said this is especially a problem in the southwest corner, an issue that impacts the entire state because that’s where the wealthiest residents tend to live.

Transportation and the creation of a possible lock box are likely to dominate legislative discussions, along with the budget, but lawmakers said they want to address other major concerns, too.

Ackert said he wants the state to upgrade its technology infrastructure as more people rely on the Internet to work from home.

Rep. Kelly Luxenburg, D-Manchester, said she wants to work on various children’s issues, and is hopeful that having a female minority leader in the House — Themis Klarides, of Derby — will create bipartisan support.

And Sharkey said he wants to take on property tax overhauls and push for more regional opportunities to allow towns to save money.

“It’s a year to go big — let’s go big on transportation, let’s go big on regional efficiencies,” he said. “And I think the governor and I are working very closely to make that happen.”