Republican leaders are willing to look at a transportation plan that will include tolls on a limited basis.
That’s a big shift in public dialogue from Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, and House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, who, until now, have said in no uncertain terms, “absolutely not.”
“If you say ‘Absolutely no tolls, I’m not talking about it, period,’ then you can’t have a discussion,” Fasano said Thursday. “… If I just say, ‘I’m not reviewing your plan because it has tolls,’ that’s not how you get things done. But that doesn’t mean I want tolls.”
Klarides, who had previously been even more explicit in her language against tolls, also said that, yes, she would at least look at a new, yet-to-be-released transportation plan from Gov. Ned Lamont.
“A plan is a plan so I’m not going to not look at it,” Klarides said. “We will have the same concern with one toll or 50 tolls, but I want to know any ideas that anybody has.”
It may not seem like a lot, and Lamont certainly isn’t tallying up Republican votes just yet, but the notable change in tone publicly and privately from Republican legislators suggests his efforts to start from scratch on a new transportation plan aren’t completely for naught, even if it includes a few tolls. One House Republican said he personally isn’t opposed to the idea of a “user fee” (that’s code for tolls), if there is a compromise elsewhere.
The plan will include tolls. A source familiar with the new plan said tolls will make up between 10 percent and 25 percent of the funding needed for transportation improvements across the state. For some Republicans, it’s not ideal, or even favorable, but it is a little more digestible.
“At 54 (tolls), it’s a nonstarter,” Fasano said. “There’s nothing you could do to get me on board. So now that he’s brought it down, I have to go back and rethink, could there be? With that all being said, I’m not enamored with the idea at all of tolls.”
Not everyone has loosened their grip on the “no tolls” line, though. Rep. Laura Devlin, R-Fairfield, a ranking Republican on the Transportation Committee, maintains she will not support any form of tolling.
Following the end of the legislative session, Lamont and his team completely scrapped their original transportation plan — which included more than 50 toll gantries and never really got off the ground after a shaky spring rollout that included few details — to seek out new ways to fund and improve the state’s transportation infrastructure.
The hope is that funding alternatives, which include federal loan programs with lower interest rates than long-term bonding, would net bipartisan support, and Fasano has had a seat at that table since he and Lamont Chief of Staff Ryan Drajeweicz traveled to Washington, D.C., together over the summer to learn about the alternative federal funding options available for the state.
“These aren’t Republican and Democrat concepts,” said Lamont spokesman Max Reiss. “Sen. Fasano has been a great partner and everyone wants the state to move forward.”
The new plan will also include details about what exactly is being paid for and how, something the original plan lacked in a significant way. That’s partly because the federal loan programs require those details — they want to know exactly how they’ll be paid back — and partly the result of continuous conversations between the governor and legislators, especially Republicans, who want to know what’s being spent and why. Reiss said tolling would be focused around specific projects that provide qualify of life improvements.
Lamont has made dozens of personal phone calls to legislators on both sides of the aisle, and met personally with several Republicans in key districts where transportation improvements may be on the table as part of his strategy in getting legislators on board.
“The point is to let people under the tent,” Reiss said. “This shouldn’t be partisan, and they’ve been appreciative of that transparency. If you’re having a discussion, everyone should be there.”
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