March 9, 2006
By CHRISTOPHER KEATING, Capitol Bureau Chief
With three different plans on the table,
2006 is emerging as the year of transportation at the state Capitol.
House Speaker James Amann, D-Milford,
Wednesday proposed a $5 billion funding plan to improve railroads,
upgrade highways and expand bus service - projects expected to be
funded evenly by federal and state funds. The state portion would
be $2.5 billion over 10 years in state bonds, which would be paid
partially by further increasing the gross receipts tax on petroleum
products, beyond already scheduled increases.
The tax would increase to 10.8 percent by 2016, almost doubling
the current rate of 5.8 percent. The tax, collected chiefly on gasoline
and diesel fuel, was increased from 5 percent in July to help fund
Gov. M. Jodi Rell's $1.3 billion transportation plan approved last
The gross receipts tax is based on
a percentage of wholesale prices, and the current rates are 12 cents
a gallon for unleaded gasoline and 13 cents on diesel fuel, said
Michael J. Fox, executive director of the state's gasoline retailers
association. Under Amann's plan, that tax would increase to 20 cents
a gallon for unleaded gasoline and 22 cents for diesel fuel by 2016
at the current prices.
Since the money collected changes as
gasoline prices go up and down, the total receipts are highly volatile.
They reached their peak last year when gasoline prices spiked above
$3 per gallon after Hurricane Katrina rocked the Gulf Coast.
In a rare joint appearance for high-level
leaders, Amann testified in front of the legislature's transportation
committee Wednesday along with House Majority Leader Christopher
Donovan, D-Meriden, and former Speaker Moira Lyons. Lyons, a longtime
Stamford lawmaker who became the legislature's key leader on transportation
issues, said that the time for studies has long since passed.
"We're actually bellying up to
the bar and saying it costs big-time money," Lyons said after
Amann and the Democrats say they are
being conservative in projecting the federal government to pay for
50 percent of the projects. In the past, federal reimbursement for
transportation projects has been about 70 percent, they said.
Amann last month proposed a $6.2 billion
transportation upgrade plan but did not provide financing details.
This year's discussion of various plans
follows last year's approval of Rell's plan. Now, Republicans and
Democrats want to enact "Phase 2" of an ambitious proposal
to end the highway gridlock and the economic chokehold that legislators
say is threatening job growth around the state. Much of Rell's initial
plan was designed to help the Metro-North Commuter Railroad in lower
Fairfield County, but the new plans this year have expanded to cover
all corners of the state.
Wednesday's activities started off
with a rally outside the state Capitol that included about 300 Teamsters,
state officials and other union members. Amann got the crowd going
at the rally as the leadoff speaker.
"I'm sick and tired of hearing
about gridlock!" Amann roared to the crowd. "This is the
year, finally, to do something bold on transportation. Are you all
"Yeah!" the crowd yelled
back in unison.
Inside at the hearing, Sen. Biagio
"Billy" Ciotto, D-Wethersfield, said he was concerned
that the expensive plans must be fully funded by the legislature.
Although some lawmakers have broached the subject about creating
tolls on the highways, Ciotto said he doubts that will happen.
"Frankly, this is an election
year, and we being profiles in courage here, I don't see anyone
coming out for tolls," said Ciotto, the transportation co-chairman.
Besides the House Democratic plan,
Senate Democrats are proposing a $1.86 billion plan that includes
nearly $1 billion for improving the commuter rail system. Senate
President Pro Tem Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, the highest-ranking
senator, wants to spend $400 million to create a commuter line from
New London to Worcester that would eventually be connected to the
"T" in Boston.
While the plans by Rell, the House
Democrats, and the Senate Democrats have differences, they also
have key points of agreement - meaning those points are ripest for
They all call for creating a New Haven-to-Hartford-to
Springfield commuter line that would include the construction of
new railroad stations in Enfield, Newington and North Haven.
All three plans also favor the long-stalled,
New Britain-to-Hartford bus way that would cut through Newington
and the Elmwood section of West Hartford on its way to Union Station
Rell's budget director, Robert Genuario,
said the various plans have differences, but he believes that all
sides have a broad general agreement that the state needs to improve
its extensive network of roads, bridges and railways. He said he
expects a final agreement before the legislative session ends on
"It's absolutely doable,"
Genuario said. "This should happen."
Rep. Cameron Staples, D-New Haven,
the co-chairman of the tax-writing finance committee, agreed that
the Democrats are flexible about compromising on the details. "We
are ready and willing to talk about alternatives," Staples
said. "We're all ears."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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