In a wide-ranging interview with Connecticut Public Radio, Governor Ned Lamont Monday touted some of his policy and personnel changes in the crucial areas of transportation and economic development.
After criticism of its rollout, the governor is continuing his push for highway tolls. He's pitching tolls as a way for out-of-state drivers to pay their fair share for using Connecticut roads.
Lamont presented the legislature with two options: tolls for trucks only and tolls for trucks and cars.
“I think getting our transportation system moving is the most important thing we can do if you believe in jobs, economic opportunity, and getting this state growing again,” Lamont told Connecticut Public Radio’s Where We Live Monday.
In his February budget address, Lamont said he’d only support tolls if there were deep discounts for in-state drivers, up to 40 percent or 50 percent compared to what an out-of-state driver would pay.
But discounts don’t necessarily alleviate the “regressive” nature of tolls. Put another way: if two drivers use the same roads the same amount, tolls hit the poorer driver’s wallet harder, regardless of any universally applied discount.
Now, Lamont is saying he’d also consider tax breaks.
“We could also do something on a tax credit or property tax to make sure middle class folks are not getting slammed by this,” Lamont said.
Massachusetts allows for in-state EZ Pass discounts. And for more than a decade, it’s let certain commuters deduct up to $750 in tolls from their state income taxes, but only if a driver paid more than $150 in tolls during that year.
And in addition to the tax question, any future tolling arrangements in Connecticut would also raise questions about how the program would be rolled out.
Lamont’s administration wants toll gantries up and running across the state by 2025 on Interstates 84, 91, 95, and Route 15.
But some lawmakers are pitching what they see as a quicker path to toll revenue: securitization.
That’s financial-speak for selling anticipated toll revenue streams to investors now, which would let the state get immediate cash in hand as soon as any tolling legislation passed.
Is that something Governor Lamont would support?
“I’d be very reluctant, but let me see the details,” Lamont told Where We Live.
As the Connecticut Mirror notes, such securitization arrangements can -- eventually -- lead to higher toll costs.
“I’m not really interested in selling off our public infrastructure,” Lamont said. “That doesn’t seem to make the most sense to me. But working collaboratively with the private sector, that’s something I would look at.”
Lamont said he also thinks state officials should consider establishing a separate transportation authority to oversee any possible future tolling programs.
“So legislators couldn’t raise tolls, unilaterally,” Lamont said. “This is the way they do it in New York and some other places. I haven’t gotten that far, but it’s certainly something I would think about.”
Looking beyond road tolls, Lamont said he wants train travel to go faster for Connecticut residents.
He pointed to improved rail service as a key factor in resolving the state’s transportation issues.
Lamont said his selection of Joe Giulietti as new Department of Transportation commissioner is a signal that he’s serious about fixing rail service. Giulietti used to be the president of the commuter railroad Metro North.
“Metro North is sort of controlled by New York right now, so having the former president, Joe Giulietti, now as head of D.O.T. gives us a big running head start," said Lamont. "If I can fix just two or three of the bridges that Metro North goes over, we can speed up transportation by 15-20 minutes between say Hartford-New Haven, New Haven-Stamford, and most importantly down to New York.”
Lamont also said he’ll look to Giulietti to help solve recent controversies on the Hartford Line.
When Amtrak trains on the line reach capacity, conductors have asked non-Amtrak ticketed passengers to get off its trains, leading to complaints about equal treatment.
The Department of Transportation says that average weekday ridership on the line is about 2,005 trips per day. CT DOT says that's slightly better than it projected.
Beyond transportation, Governor Lamont also defended his controversial pick for economic development commissioner, after criticism of David Lehman’s past record on Wall Street.
Lehman formerly worked for Goldman Sachs and was at the firm in 2007, a period when it later admitted it had been defrauding investors in its handling of mortgage-backed securities.
Lamont said he doesn’t believe Lehman can be faulted personally.
“A lot of people have Googled Goldman Sachs, and they say, Goldman Sachs is a firm where he was and they blame the firm or Wall Street for a lot of what happened," said Lamont. "That’s not David Lehman, I mean David Lehman was 28 years old. He had just showed up.”
Lehman was co-head of the firm’s mortgage trading operations in the securities division.
Lehman himself faced close questioning last week from a legislative committee -- his nomination must still be approved by the full Senate.