We need ideas for transportation funding

As he plans his two-year budget proposal, the state’s rapidly depleting fund for transportation infrastructure is a major headache, Gov. Ned Lamont told a business audience on Friday.

He asked for their help, not with money but with ideas — a year after every financing plan to fix highways, bridges and transit systems failed in the General Assembly.

The state’s Special Transportation Fund is slowly but steadily going broke and could be exhausted by 2024. Updated transit infrastructure remains a key to the state’s future economic success and viability, Lamont told an online economic summit of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association.

Lamont recalled that his trucking-tolling proposal “went over like a lead balloon” in the legislature, which dropped the plan in an election year. Business executives at larger companies tended to favor tolling, while smaller companies and were divided. CBIA, with a divided board, did not take a public position on tolls.

“I didn’t like the other guys’ ideas either, you know, which was borrow $700 million a year or take the money from the rainy day fund,” Lamont said of a plan from minority Republicans to tap the state’s $3 billion emergency reserves. Lamont, during a conversation with Chris DiPentima, president and CEO of CBIA, asked for help from the business community.

“So weigh in,” Lamont said. “I need a problem solvers caucus who cannot just blame from the sidelines, but say ‘Here’s how I would solve the problem,’ and CBIA can really help me take the lead on this. If we can do this with transportation, we can do this with maybe pensions and other big knotty problems that have festered in this state for too long.”

Lamont presented a mixed picture of transportation financing, with locally generated revenues falling but more cash expected from the Feds in the Biden administration.

“People are driving less, the price of gasoline is down,” and that reduces a large source of revenue, fuel taxes, Lamont said during a 45-minute morning appearance. “So it’s just one of those things that Hartford hates to solve but we have to solve it.”

In the pandemic, however, with many fewer cars on the road, many state Department of Transportation projects were able to pivot to daytime construction, saving the state money, Lamont said.

As for federal money, “I think you’re going to see Connecticut get an additional $200-plus million out of federal support,” he said. “So we’re in good shape. We don’t have to slow things down. We don’t have to slow up the state of good repair. But I still say shame on Connecticut. The feds are going to come up with an infrastructure bill, which is transportation, broadband, green technology and it’s going to be 80-20 or 90-10 (reimbursement). We have to show we have a revenue stream we can pay for our 20-percent share on that.”

DiPentima did not commit to anything specific but showed support.

“I’m happy to say, governor, that this is one of our top priorities for this year: a bipartisan solution to the the transportation and infrastructure,” DiPentima said. “That’s critical to growing our state. That’s critical to us being better and stronger than before.”

[email protected] Twitter: @KenDixonCT