NAUGATUCK — Opposition to proposed highway tolls dominated the discussion between local legislators and members of the business community Thursday morning as they talked politics over eggs and potatoes.
“I’m a ‘no’ on tolls,” said state Rep. David Labriola, R-Oxford, during the Naugatuck Chamber of Commerce’s annual legislative breakfast. “This idea that these tolls are trucks only is just not accurate. A simple flip of a switch, cars could be captured … The trucking industry is a bedrock of our economy and they’re supplying all the goods. Where’s all that extra cost going to go? It’s going to be passed down to the individuals.”
Re-establishing highway tolls has been a hotly-contested issue in Hartford. Senate Democrats released a 32-page transportation funding bill Jan. 27. The legislation proposed a network of 12 truck-only bridge tolls that would be used to help secure federal funding to help finance 12 planned bridge improvement projects.
The Transportation Committee held a hearing on the legislation Friday. The General Assembly opens its regular 2020 session Wednesday.
State Sen. George Logan, R-Ansonia, and state Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, joined Labriola at the breakfast and in his opposition to tolls.
“I can confidently say the majority of Naugatuck is against tolls and certainly the small group that even entertain trucks, they were pretty much clear in saying that if this is going to be expanded to be imposed (on cars) they’re no way shape or form also interested in supporting that,” Rebimbas said. “If truck tolls pass in the state of Connecticut, it will turn to vehicles.”
Logan said the state has to spend significantly more on transportation and infrastructure, but needs to find another source of transportation funding.
“In terms of prioritizing transportation and infrastructure on the same page, it’s just a matter of how to fund it and we don’t believe that tolls are required to do that,” Logan said. “Just afraid that with this wedge, additional mechanism of toll, it’s just going to put another wedge in our pockets and make it easier for state government to tax us more.”
Logan feels Gov. Ned Lamont and Democratic leaders were rushing the tolls proposal.
“Whether it’s the Republican party, whether it’s the media, I’m getting it from residents and businesses, we’re finding many holes in the governor’s latest trucks-only toll proposal,” Logan said. “There’s too much wiggle room to wiggle in and squeeze in passenger cars as well, in which case we’re looking really at a total package in terms of tolling trucks as well as passenger cars.”
As the tolls discussion cooled down, the topic turned to the Waterbury branch of the Metro-North Railroad.
The branch is an overlooked rail line that runs from Waterbury to Bridgeport through the Naugatuck Valley. Officials in towns along the rail line have been pushing for improvements to the branch, which they feel will lead to economic development in their towns.
“To me, all this talk of tolls is totally irrelevant,” Naugatuck Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess told the legislators. “Rail can be fixed by funding from the federal government where there is no requirement for a new revenue source, number one. Number two, rail takes cars and trucks off the highways and eliminates the congestion.”
Hess said there’s support for improvements to the Waterbury branch beyond the Naugatuck Valley.
“I think the whole state should start with rail. Focus on rail first; get the cars and trucks off the road. Get some victories, you’ve had no victories,” Hess said. “Everyone talks about multi-billion dollar plans to fix everything. Why not start with some wins? The Waterbury branch line is a win.”
Legislators were quick to say they support investing in the Waterbury line in Hartford.
“I don’t even see that as a question, that’s exactly 100% what we’re going to do,” Rebimbas said. “We just have to make sure everybody else votes that way. Unfortunately, the reality when it comes to transportation right now is the smoke and mirrors of the tolls. Everything is being held hostage, including our bonding funds, because of this topic.”