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CT Construction Digest Tuesday January 28, 2020


A deal on bonding and a drafted transportation bill move CT closer to tolls

Gov. Ned Lamont and the General Assembly took two significant steps late Monday toward ordering electronic tolls on large trucks that travel Connecticut’s highways.
Lamont announced a compromise deal on a new state bond package — a prerequisite for any tolls vote — that curtails borrowing for non-transportation projects, but not as sharply as the governor envisioned in the “debt diet” he unveiled last February.
Majority Democrats in the state Senate also released a first draft of the tolls bill and confirmed an informational hearing on the measure has been scheduled for Friday.
These conditions set the stage for a vote on tolls next week. And Lamont said he still expects lawmakers will act in special session on Monday or Tuesday next week, just before the regular 2020 session begins on Wednesday.
“We’ve got a good bond package,” the governor said. “We’ve reached agreement on where we’re going to go there.”
Lamont didn’t release all the details of the two-year bond plan, but said the centerpiece is $1.7 billion in general obligation [G.O.] bonding for the current fiscal year.
During the eight-year administration of Lamont’s predecessor, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, new G. O. bonding — financing for projects paid off with General Fund budget revenues — had averaged almost $2.1 billion per year.
“I thought we needed some discipline in terms of how much borrowing we do going forward,” Lamont said. “We’re going to be borrowing significantly less than they have, on average, over the last eight years.”
Details on bonding for the 2020-21 fiscal year were not released late Monday.Lamont asked lawmakers last February to limit their new G.O. bonding to just over $1.4 billion this fiscal year, but many of his fellow Democrats in the legislature argued this was too lean.
Connecticut uses general obligation bonds to fund municipal school construction, capital projects at public colleges and universities, state building maintenance, open space and farmland preservation, and various, smaller community-based projects.
Transportation construction is paid for with a mix of federal grants and a second type of state bonding, Special Tax Obligation bonds. These STO bonds are repaid with resources from the budget’s Special Transportation Fund. The STF primarily draws revenues from fuel taxes and a portion of the state sales tax.
Lamont insists tolls are needed because the transportation fund has not kept pace with the maintenance needs of Connecticut’s aging, overcrowded highways, bridges and rail lines.
As part of the tentative bond agreement, about $100 million of the $1.7 billion in G.O. bonding approved for this fiscal year will be dedicated to transportation work.
Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, co-chairman of the legislature’s Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, said both the Lamont administration and lawmakers compromised to find common ground on a two-year financing plan.
“It’s taken us a while to get here, and not from a lack of interest or a lack of effort,” Rojas said. and this financing advanced top priorities in education, health care and economic development that otherwise would have languished.
The governor would not sign off on a new bonding plan until legislators either adopted a tolls proposal, or otherwise showed how they planned to pay for necessary transportation upgrades in the coming years.
Many legislators who supported tolls countered by saying they would not vote for this new revenue source unless a bonding agreement had been reached.
The tentative deal also marks a big win for Connecticut’s cities and towns.
Three municipal aid programs, which distributed $150 million to communities last fiscal year, have hung in limbo as Lamont and legislators sparred over borrowing. Sources say these grants, including a crucial $60 million local road maintenance program that also pays for winter snow removal, are funded in each year of the tentative, two-year bond package.
Details of the tolls billThe bill calls for tolls to be placed on large, commercial trucks with a rating of Class 8 or higher. This would exempt many Connecticut small businesses from paying the toll.
The bill authorizes the Transportation and Motor Vehicles departments to hire a toll operator. The DOT commissioner may establish rates provided they fall within a range of $6 to $13 per gantry. E-ZPass holders would be eligible for a discount.
Lamont estimates this would generate about $180 million per year in revenue for the budget’s Special Transportation Fund.
Toll rates could be increased by the DOT to reflect the general rate of inflation or the construction cost index, provided those increases are approved by the state’s Transportation Policy Council.
The bill also contains two provisions to guard against any effort by future legislatures to order tolls on smaller trucks or cars.
Until any bonds issued through mid-2022 for transportation projects are paid off — which likely would take into the late 2040s or early 2050s — “the state of Connecticut shall not charge tolls for any class of vehicle other than large commercial trucks,” the bill reads.
The measure also directs the state treasurer to write into the bond covenant — the contract between the state and the investors that purchase Connecticut’s transportation bonds — “that no public or special act of the General Assembly” approved between now and 2030 would attempt to alter this arrangement.
The bill orders 12 toll gantries, chiefly at the locations of aging bridges. All of these locations were identified months ago by the Lamont administration as priorities, primarily because they involve aging bridges.
I-84 at the Rochambeau Bridge between Newtown and Southbury.
I-84 in Waterbury near the “Mixmaster” junction with Route 8.
I-84 in West Hartford at the crossing over Berkshire Road.
I-91 in Hartford at the Charter Oak Bridge.
I-95 in Stamford over the MetroNorth rail line.
I-95 in Westport crossing over Route 33.
I-95 in West Haven over the MetroNorth line.
I-95 in East Lyme crossing over Route 161.
I-95 at the Gold Star Memorial Bridge over the Thames River, between New London and Groton.
I-395 in Plainfield crossing over the Moosup River.
I-684 in Greenwich overpassing the Byram River.
Route 8 in Waterbury south of the interchange with I-84.

In latest tolls plan, appointed board would set gantry rates
Kaitlyn Krasselt
A panel of 12 people would have the power to set toll rates, according to the latest version of a bill that would implement trucks-only tolling on a dozen highway bridges across the state.The transportation commissioner would establish the initial base rate for tolls — between $6 and $13 — and have the ability to propose future changes, under a version of the bill released Monday night by Senate Democrats.
A new Transportation Policy Council would then have the sole authority to change the rates on any tolled bridge.
The new draft is a departure from previous proposals that would leave the rating structure in the hands of the legislature. The trucks-only scheme is projected to raise about $175 million a year, after expenses, for Gov. Ned Lamont’s 10-year, $19.4-billion transportation infrastructure proposal.
Charges would apply only to the largest trucks, mostly interstate carriers, not in-state delivery vehicles. The fees would be higher than those proposed for trucks in an earlier plan by Lamont that included all vehicles.
A public hearing on the 32-page bill is scheduled for Friday, with a vote expected early next week — ahead of the start of the General Assembly’s regular session.
Sources say Democrats have enough votes in the Senate to pass the plan. House leaders have said they had adequate support for earlier, more expansive versions of Gov. Ned Lamont’s toll plans.
No Republicans have said they would support tolling in any form.
The council would comprise appointees by legislators who have expertise in various transportation areas, including commuter rail, transportation equity, bus transportation, municipal government, public safety, and construction or engineering. Also on the council would be the secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, the state Treasurer and commissioners of economic and community development, energy and environmental protection and housing.
One appointee selected by the Governor would be required to have expertise in transit-oriented development, while another would represent the building trades.
Nonvoting members of the council would include the transportation commissioner and the chairs and ranking members of the General Assembly’s transportation committee and bonding subcommittee.
The locations are the same as those that were in Lamont’s proposal for 14 gantries in November, which included tolls for cars as well as trucks.
Toll Locations
Interstate 84 crossing the Housatonic River in Newtown and Southbury
Interstate 84 and Connecticut Route 8 in Waterbury
Connecticut Route 8, south of I-84 in Waterbury
Interstate 84 over Berkshire Road in the town of West Hartford near exit 43.
Interstate 91 and Connecticut Route 15 at the Charter Oak Bridge in Hartford, leading toward East Hartford
Interstate 95 over the Metro-North Railroad in Stamford
Interstate 95 over Connecticut Route 33 in Westport
Interstate 95 spanning the Metro-North Railroad in West Haven
Interstate 95 over Connecticut Route 161 in East Lyme
Interstate 95 over the Thames River in New London and Groton, the Gold Star Bridge
Interstate 395 over the Moosup River in Plainfield
Interstate 684 over the Byram River in Greenwich, a location of almost entirely New York State traffic
Ken Dixon contributed to this story.

Landmark legislation on transportation is in the works
HARTFORD — State lawmakers could finally vote early next week on re-establishing highway tolls in Connecticut following the release of a much anticipated transportation funding bill on Monday.
Work continued through the weekend on the landmark legislation that Lamont and legislative Democratic leaders are looking to approve before the General Assembly opens its regular 2020 session next Wednesday.
Senate Democrats released a 32-page version of the bill late Monday afternoon. The Transportation Committee has scheduled a hearing on the legislation for 1 p.m. Friday. No date for the special session was set Monday, but legislators were advised last week to keep next Monday and Tuesday open.
The legislation will propose a network of 12 truck-only bridge tolls that Gov. Ned Lamont said Monday is estimated to raise $180 million annually when all tolling locations are up and running.
The state removed tolls from Interstate 95, the Merritt and Wilbur Cross parkways and a couple of bridges in the 1980s. Tolls are being reconsidered now as a means of financially shoring up the Special Transportation Fund.
As expected, the legislation exempts all vehicles but the largest commercial tractor-trailers using the 13-category classification system that the Federal Highway Administration developed. The bill includes two guarantees against expanding the tolling system to passenger cars or lighter trucks.
The measure requires that special tax obligation bonds that are generally used to finance transportation projects include restrictions that no other vehicles will be subject to tolls. It bars the legislature from altering this provision from July 2020 to July 2030.
 The plan is to use toll receipts to secure low-interest federal loans through the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act to help fund the 12 bridge improvement projects. The legislation specifies loan agreements must also include a restriction against tolling other vehicles.
Only trucks in class 8 and higher would have to pay bridge tolls under the bill. This cutoff will spare lighter commercial vehicles such as box trucks that many small businesses use. The class 8 category includes two-axle trucks pulling one- and two-axle trailers, two-axle tractors pulling one- and two-axle trailers, and three-axle tractors pulling one-axle trailers.
The legislation directs the state commissioner of transportation to set the initial toll rates. It specifies the base rate for trucks equipped with a Connecticut-issued electronic transponder will range from $6 to $13, depending on the cost of a bridge project. Rates will be 50% higher for trucks without one.
The list of bridge projects includes the Mixmaster interchange of Interstate 84 and Route 8 in Waterbury, four bridges on Route 8 south of the I-84 interchange in Waterbury, and the Rochambeau Bridge over the Housatonic River on I-84 in Newtown and Southbury.
Trucks with a state-issued electronic pass will only be charged one toll per bridge per day in each direction. Round trips would initially range from $12 to $26.
The legislation authorizes the creation of a Transportation Policy Council to set future toll rates. It limits increases to the greater of the rate of inflation, or the construction cost index.
The National Highway Construction Index is quarterly estimate of the rising cost of domestic highway construction and maintenance over time that the Federal Highway Administration issues.
The Department of Transportation may propose rate changes, but none may take effect until the Transportation Policy Council approves the toll charges.
The Transportation Policy Council will have 13 voting and nine nonvoting members. The six top legislative leaders get to point one voting member each. The governor gets to appoint two more members, plus four cabinet officials who will serve on the panel. The state treasurer will round out the voting members.
The cabinet members are the secretary of the Office of Policy and Management and the commissioners of economic and community development, energy and environmental protection, and housing.
The commissioner of transportation will serve as a nonvoting member along with the four co-chairmen and the four ranking members of the Transportation Committee and the tax-writing Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee.
The bill states council members will appoint a chairman among themselves. It specifies the council must meet for the first time by June 1, and then it must meet at least once during every calendar quarter.
Lamont said approval of the transportation funding bill will clear the way for the adoption of a two-year bonding bill. He had refused to agree on a borrowing package until he had a deal on transportation. The governor said the bonding bill will authorize $1.7 billion in general obligation bonds a year, with $100 million going to support transportation spending.

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