Connecticut lawmakers approve new tax on trucks to fund road repairs

·4 min read

With declining revenue from the gas tax and highway tolls off the table for now, Democrats in the General Assembly on Tuesday approved a new user fee on large trucks, asserting that it is the fairest way to fund road repairs.

“It is no secret that we have spent quite some time in Connecticut talking about … how we can make the necessary improvements to our infrastructure,’' said Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford and the co-chairman of the legislature’s finance committee.

“What we have before us is a solution that says those who use the road and do the most damage [will] pay a little bit in the effort to make sure our roads and bridges can become safer,’' Scanlon said during a six-hour debate on the proposal in the House of Representatives Tuesday night.

The measure cleared the House by a vote of 88 to 59. Six Democrats joined the entire Republican caucus in voting no. The bill was approved early Wednesday in the Senate by a 22-14 vote with two democrats joining the 12-member Senate Republican caucus in opposition.

Republicans say the proposal is nothing more than a stealthy new tax that will jack up the cost of food and other consumer goods. “We have a bill right in front of us that raises taxes, it just does it in a different way,’' said Rep. Joe Polletta, R-Watertown. “I think of it as kind of like going in through the backdoor.”

The measure would institute a new fee on all trucks that weigh more than 26,000 pounds. It is expected to generate about $90 million annually, with all of the money earmarked for road and bridge maintenance and repairs, Scanlon said.

Only two other states — New York and Oregon — have a similar funding scheme. But, Scanlon added, “just about every state around us has tolls as do many other states in this country and we do not.’'

Connecticut has struggled for years to come up with a system to fund its infrastructure. The state’s Special Transportation Fund is projected to run $60.6 million in the red this fiscal year and even more so in the future.

Gov. Ned Lamont had proposed highway tolls but in the face of stiff resistance, he dropped the plan.

This year, the Democratic governor proposed the highway user tax, saying it was unfair that trucks pay tolls as high as $100 to cross the George Washington Bridge between New York and New Jersey, but then drive through Connecticut for free.

But Republicans say the trucking companies will simply pass the tax on to consumers.

“I don’t think any of us has gone to fill our car up with gas or gone to the supermarket and not been shocked about how prices have increased,’' said Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme. “This is exactly the kind of move that will only add to that inflation. During a time when were recovering from our pandemic and so many of our residents continue to struggle with paying their bills … this is ill-timed and ill-advised.”

Rep. Whit Betts, R-Bristol, said the title of the bill is a misnomer. “Let’s not call this a ‘trucker user tax.’ Let’s call it what it is: a tax on every single person on Connecticut,” he said.

Democrats agreed to carve out an exemption for trucks operated by dairy farms. “We need to support our dairy farms in any way possible,’' said Rep. Susan Johnson, a Democrat from Windham. She noted that Connecticut as lost 180 dairy farms over the past decade.

Joe Sculley, president of the Motor Transport Association of Connecticut, a trucking industry group, said the exemption makes no sense.

“The House of Representatives passed the truck mileage tax tonight, but not before voting to exempt the heaviest trucks on the road – dairy trucks – from paying the tax,’' Sculley said. “This just goes to show that the truck mileage tax is not actually about damage to the roads, it’s just about money. Lighter weight trucks will be subsidizing heavier trucks that will be exempt from the tax.”

Republicans pressed for other exemptions, including for trucks that transport any food item as well as those that haul farm equipment, but their ideas were rejected.

Scanlon said the proposal is key to developing a long-term strategy to fund transportation projects.

“The one source that we historically use to fund our DOT capital projects is a dying revenue source. It’s the fuel tax,’' Scanlon said. “It’s not going to die tomorrow, it’s not going to die next year. But as we move away from fossil fuels ... that revenue will go down and down and down.”

At the same time, Scanlon said, the list of road and bridge projects is “going up and up and up ... we have crumbling infrastructure.”

Daniela Altimari can be reached at dnaltimari@courant.com.

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