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CT Construction Digest Wednesday November 27, 2019

Top Democrats unite behind Lamont on truck tolls
Gov. Ned Lamont and Democratic legislative leaders united Tuesday behind a transportation financing concept that would rely on trucks-only tolls, a breakthrough for a governor whose own party had repeatedly frustrated his major first-year objective of modernizing Connecticut’s aging highways and commuter rail system.
Senate Democratic leaders, who had summarily dismissed Lamont’s two earlier proposals for tolls on all motor vehicles as politically unpalatable and rejected his characterization of transportation infrastructure as a crisis, endorsed the new approach and insisted it should be refined and passed in special session, most likely in January.
“It is absolutely essential that we get this done,” said Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven. “There is a real crisis in our state that we cannot just delay any longer in terms of the needed reconstruction of our roads and bridges. We need to get this done now. We don’t want the issue to drag into the 2020 session. We think we have momentum on that issue, and the time to move is now.”
With the Democratic governor and leaders of the Democratic legislative majorities agreeing on a transportation financing approach for the first time since Lamont made his initial proposal in February, their challenge is to fully develop what is now a detailed outline and convince their caucuses it is financially sound and politically defensible.
Lamont and the legislators spoke to reporters after a meeting at the Executive Residence that marked the end of the administration’s efforts to find a bipartisan approach to financing CT2030, the governor’s $21 billion list of transportation projects that he says can remake commuting life and spark economic growth over the next 10 years.
“This plan works, and the numbers add up,” Lamont said.
Rhode Island implemented the nation’s first trucks-only tolls last year, drawing a legal challenge from the trucking industry that is pending. Lamont proposed trucks-only tolls during the 2018 session, only to push for a broader plan once elected.
House Democrats resurrected the idea after the Senate balked at automobile tolls.
“I think that the House has really shown us the way by coming out with the truck-only plan, which is in effect a return to a version of what the governor had proposed in the election last year and is in fact the only plan that is voter approved, given the virtue of the fact he was elected running on that proposal,” Looney said.
Taking turns standing before a fireplace in a formal living room at the governor’s residence, the legislative leaders quickly delivered a preview of how the plan will be promoted by Democrats and panned by Republicans in special session and during the 2020 campaign for control of the General Assembly.
Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, whose caucus offered an alternative to tolls that would have required spending $1.5 billion of the $2.5 billion budget reserves, said no one believes that state government can be trusted to stick with truck-only tolls.
“The confidence it’s going to remain a truck toll is very low,” Fasano said.
Democrats say they would be open to any legislative language, including a constitutional amendment, clarifying that automobile tolls are off the table in Connecticut.
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said Republicans are stoking fears about what could come next, rather than debate what Democrats are actually proposing.
He warned the GOP alternative would leave Connecticut without the financial cushion to weather a recession, jeopardizing residents who rely on state services and potentially exposing them to tax increases.
“My question to them is why are they picking truck drivers over our middle class?” Aresimowicz said.
Each side accused the other of intransigence, and the exchange continued in an exchange of emailed statements.
“The comments made by legislative Democrats and Gov. Lamont following today’s meeting were nothing but political talking points defending their insatiable desire to tax people more,” Fasano said. “They want tolls, they want to borrow more, they want more tax revenue from Connecticut residents – on top of their new taxes on plastic bags and groceries. They do not want to work with Republicans to do what is truly best for our state and its residents. They want tolls. Period.”
The Lamont administration responded in kind.
“Senator Fasano must be talking about a completely different meeting and a totally different plan,” said Max Reiss, the governor’s communications director. “Today, Governor Lamont asked legislative leaders from both sides of the aisle to come together and discuss for nearly two hours how to grow the state’s economy and fix its broken transportation system. For the last several months, the governor’s administration has invested considerably in collaboratively working towards a bipartisan solution – one that included Senator Fasano.”
With some creative financing, the Democrats say they could come within $1 billion of the $21 billion spending goal of CT2030, even though truck tolls would produce an estimated $180 million, slightly more than half the $320 million projected the plan Lamont released on Nov. 7. Lamont needs a dedicated revenue stream to obtain low-cost federal financing.
That tolling revenue gap is significant. Democrats did not disclose all the details for making up the difference, but they highlighted two solutions.
Low-interest federal loans the state is seeking for bridge and rail improvements would be financed over 35 years, rather than the 27 years anticipated in Lamont’s earlier plan. According to the administration, this would save an average of about $16.3 million per year in debt costs between 2020 and 2030, a total of about $180 million.
Another element is a more modest version of the GOP alternative: Using some of the budget reserves to pay down pension debt, which would lessen the annual contributions now required. Lamont and Democratic legislators would tap between $250 million and $260 million earmarked for the budget reserves after Sept. 30, 2021.
By then, according to projections by the administration and the legislature’s non-partisan Office of Fiscal Analysis, the reserves will exceed the statutory limit of 15 percent of operating costs, or about $3 billion. Once that threshold is crossed, excess reserves automatically are used to pay down pension debt.
The GOP option would have transferred $1.5 billion from the rainy day fund into the pension fund immediately, allowing the state to reduce annual pension contributions by almost $130 million per year through 2030 and put those dollars into transportation.

Gov. Ned Lamont, Democrats unite around truck-only tolls, rule out passenger cars in compromise

After months of fits and starts, Gov. Ned Lamont and Democratic legislators joined together Monday on a new plan for truck-only tolls, pledging to avoid tolls on passenger cars.Democratic leaders said they would go as far as passing a constitutional amendment that would ban tolls on passenger vehicles in order to allay fears among drivers that the tolls would eventually be extended to all vehicles.After meeting for more than 90 minutes behind closed doors at the Governor’s Residence in Hartford, the Democratic leaders emerged with a revised, updated plan in the long-running saga over highway tolls that has become the most hotly debated topic of the year at the state Capitol. The new proposal saves money by dropping Lamont’s 10-year transportation plan from $21 billion to $20 billion. In addition, Democrats are exploring paying back low-interest federal infrastructure loans over a 35-year period, rather than the original plan for 27 years. While the overall costs are traditionally higher when payments are extended, the individual yearly payments would be lower and more affordable, officials said. Top legislative leaders said they have not held caucuses with rank-and-file House and Senate Democrats on the details of the plan, but they said there was more support among lawmakers for truck-only tolls than for tolling passenger vehicles. Lawmakers are targeting the large tractor-trailers they say cause far more damage to the roads than passenger cars, adding that an estimated 40 percent of the bill would be paid by out-of-state drivers. Lamont said after the meeting he wants to move forward with the truck-only proposal that was presented recently by House Democrats that calls for 12 tolling locations around the state that would generate about $180 million per year. The governor’s original plan, released earlier this fall, called for tolling all vehicles at 14 locations to raise about $320 million a year. “We like this plan. This plan works, and the numbers add up,” Lamont said. “I’m here to solve problems — not to study problems. ... Let’s get this thing started in an honest and comprehensive way.” At the same time, Republican leaders who attended the meeting with Lamont said afterward they remain opposed to any tolls. “It’s very difficult for Republicans to support a toll plan, given the fact that there is a no-toll plan on the table,” said Senate Republican leader Len Fasano of North Haven, who earlier this month released a transportation plan without tolling. “It is very difficult to find support [among Republicans] in the House or the Senate for a toll plan. ... We believe a truck toll is a non-starter.” House Republican leader Themis Klarides of Derby agreed, saying, “We don’t actually believe the trucks-only plan works.” The Senate Republicans’ transportation plan would use $1.5 billion of the state’s $2.5 billion rainy day fund to help finance transportation improvements. But Lamont has been relatively cool to the idea, saying it is “risky” to take emergency funds that would be needed during a recession to close the state’s budget holes. House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, a Berlin Democrat, said that spending 60% of the rainy day fund would be a mistake. “When that recession comes, and there’s no money left in the savings account, we will cut education, we will cut nonprofits,” he said. "That’s why we came up with the truck-only tolling plan.''  House Democrats have proposed a hybrid of Lamont’s earlier — and then discarded — plan to impose tolls only on trucks. The Democrats are seeking 12 overhead tolling gantries in the same spots proposed by Lamont — except for Route 9 in Middletown and on the Merritt Parkway in Norwalk because trucks are not permitted on the Merritt. Senate Democrats, who have not released their own plan, met privately with Lamont for nearly two hours recently in their caucus room and rejected the governor’s earlier plan for tolls on all vehicles. Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said that the truck-only plan “is, in fact, the only plan that is voter-approved, given the fact that [Lamont] was elected, running on that proposal.”  He added, “It is absolutely essential that we get this done. ... We need to get this done now. We don’t want the issue to drag on into the 2020 session.”  If Democrats rally around the plan in a way that they have not all year a vote could be held before the next legislative session begins in February. Lamont’s wide-ranging transportation plan calls for fixing roads and bridges, along with spending a combined $5 billion for railroad lines that include Metro-North, the New Haven-to-Hartford line, and the Shoreline East commuter line that runs from New Haven to New London. While Lamont was talking to legislators inside, a group of about 15 anti-toll protesters gathered outside the Governor’s Residence on Prospect Avenue in Hartford’s West End. Some cars and trucks passing by blew their horns in agreement as the protesters held up signs against tolls. "Election 2020 is right around the corner, and I can’t see them coming up with a solution by then,'' said Patrick Sasser, a Stamford firefighter who leads a grassroots organization called No Tolls CT. “Trucks-only will be the gateway to all vehicles — cars, trucks, everything. We have not trust for this system. Once you put one gantry in, you’ve opened a Pandora’s box.”

Lamont, Democrats say they will push trucks-only tolling
Ken Dixon
HARTFORD — Democrats and Gov. Ned Lamont on Tuesday pushed their trucks-only tolling plan to improve highways and railroads, charging that a Republican alternative to use more than half the state’s emergency reserves could put the budget into a dire position when the next national economic downturn occurs.
During an hour-and-40 minute meeting in the Governor’s Residence, as about 16 anti-toll protesters roamed the sidewalks outside, Republicans came no closer to agreeing with Democrats on tolls.
But Democratic legislative leaders said they would sharpen their plan to use some of the emergency fund, and toll large and medium-sized trucks to the tune of about $180 million-to-$200 million a year. While they declined to say whether they thought they could finally get enough support in their majority caucuses in the House and Senate, they seemed more aggressive and unified on the issue than they have all year.
Lamont said the Republican proposal would heap even more debt on taxpayers through increased borrowing.
“We laid out a plan that gets our Special Transportation Fund fixed, takes care of our roads and bridges in a real way without raiding the rainy day fund, without piling on $700 million a year in debt on the backs of Connecticut taxpayers,” Lamont said. “This plan works and the numbers add up.”
The governor said that Democrats and Republicans will continue to keep talking.
“Why are they picking truck drivers over our middle class?” said Speaker of the House Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin. “Because that’s what’s going to happen. When that recession comes and there’s no money left in the savings account, we will cut education, we will cut non-profits, and the other side of the aisle will say ‘ah, terrible managers they are. They didn’t plan for something like this happening.’ Well, we did, but we also plan to move our infrastructure in the state of Connecticut forward and that’s why we came out with a trucks-only tolling plan.”
Senate President Pro Tempore Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said he would even support a constitutional amendment assuring residents that the trucks-only gantries on at least a dozen bridges would be the limit of tolling. He said defaulting to Lamont’s 2018 campaign plan for trucks-only tolls seems to have the backing of voters.
“It is the only plan that’s voter-approved, given the virtue of the fact that he was in fact elected,” Looney said. “The focus has to be on those trucks, both in-state and out-of-state. There is a real crisis in our state that we cannot just delay any longer in terms of the needed reconstruction of our roads and bridges.”
Looney hinted that a special legislative session could still be held next month or January, prior to the budget-adjustment session that begins Feb. 5.
“I think we’ve come up with a good plan and a good compromise,” said Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk. “It is extremely important that we get this issue done, behind us and that the people of Connecticut have confidence in fixing our transportation infrastructure that’s gone on, unfinished, for too long.”
House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, suggested that families driving into neighboring states over the holiday play a game, totaling out-of-state trucks. “I want you to count the 18-wheelers and I want your kids to total the license plates that come from those states. It’s going to be Oklahoma, Nevada, everything around the country and they will pay in every single state,” Ritter said. “They pay nothing here.”
Ritter said that in 2017, a bipartisan budget stressed the need to keep the emergency reserves robust, but the Republican proposal would use more than half of it.“Truck tolling is a non-starter,” Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, told reporters who had been kept on the sidewalk with the protesters and about 10 construction-union officials who favor of tolls, then finally allowed into the West End neighborhood mansion’s living room after the talks.
Fasano said that residential confidence in the General Assembly’s ability to keep its word on the expansion of government is low.
“We make promises and haven’t kept them in the past,” Fasano said.
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said that the meeting, while ultimately a failure on the part of Democrats to persuade the GOP lawmakers on tolls, was a sign that both sides were actually communicating.
“We should have done this eight months ago, 10 months ago,” Klarides said. “The problem is they’re still stopped in their thought process on tolls, and we do not feel that that’s anything we can ever support. I think the shame of it is we can agree to a lot of things as long as tolls are not the basis for the transportation funding.”
Fasano in recent weeks offered a plan to take $1.5 billion of the $2.5-billion emergency reserves called the rainy day fund, pay down part of the unfunded pension liability, then use savings in fringe and health benefits to invest in an $18-billion transportation infrastructure plan similar to Lamont’s, which had totaled $21 billion for 10 years, but on Tuesday was reduced to $20 billion.
In a follow-up email to reporters, after the governor and the Democratic leaders spoke, Fasano said that if Democrats have the support for tolls, they should schedule a vote.
“They do not want to work with Republicans to do what is truly best for our state and its residents,” Fasano said. “They want tolls, period.”

Lamont Joins Democratic Lawmakers In Backing Truck-Only Tolls

NY developer proposes $40M mixed-use development along CT River in Hartford
Joe Cooper, Greg Bordonaro
New York developer is looking to build a sprawling $40 million mixed-use complex on the Connecticut River in downtown Hartford.The proposed development by Acqua Ark LLC, of Rye, N.Y., aims to include a variety of retail, restaurant and event spaces along city-owned land within Riverfront Park adjacent to the Mortensen Riverfront Plaza at 300 Columbus Blvd.Acqua Ark President George Bryant on Tuesday said the complex would be built on land-based floating technology that it’s leveraged in recent projects in Europe. The "amphibious" promenade would be able to float and rise upon the water during flood conditions, he said.
Moreover, during typical flood stages, the promenade would be connected to the Mortensen Plaza in a way that allows continuous use, he added. He is scheduled to present his vision to the city's planning, economic development and housing committee Tuesday, Dec. 3.  “This is a preliminary vision, but the elements of the technology have been done before,” Bryant said. “Everything we are looking at has been accomplished some place else.” Bryant said the ambitious proposal would mark his firm’s first major development project in Connecticut. Acqua pitched a similar waterfront project in Bridgeport in recent years, but city officials denied it. Under the proposal, Acqua plans to fully fund the mixed-use complex with help from several minority partners. City and state funding has not yet been proposed for the project at this point, Bryant said. The proposed site is currently zoned as open space and has no structures on-site. Bryant’s vision for redeveloping the waterfront property sprang out of Hartford City Councilman John Gale’s resolution last year that encouraged development along the Connecticut River, including dining options, a marina and houseboat accommodations. That resolution, however, got pushback as environmental advocates, including the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), who warned Mayor Luke Bronin and other city leaders to remain cautious of any proposed development along the river given that the waterway regularly floods.  Climate change is also likely to continue deteriorating the banks of the Connecticut River, they argued. On Tuesday, Gale, a former engineer, said he understands the challenges of riverfront development but he thinks they can be overcome."The engineer in me says this is a serious proposal," said Gale, adding he hopes the vision sparks a conversation about the project's feasibility. "The idea is to whet people’s appetite," he said. Gale said Bryant reached out to him about the idea last April, shortly after this resolution started getting press coverage. Gale said cities all over the world have exploited their riverfronts while Hartford has remained a laggard. For example, San Antonio's Riverwalk adds $2 billion to that city's economy. Before Bryant’s vision begins to take shape, Acqua would first need to score a slew of approvals from the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission, DEEP and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

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