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Lawmakers receptive to federal transportation loan program

NEWINGTON, Conn. (AP) — Both Democrats and Republicans expressed interest on Friday in low-cost federal loan programs to help fix Connecticut’s transporta...

NEWINGTON, Conn. (AP) — Both Democrats and Republicans expressed interest on Friday in low-cost federal loan programs to help fix Connecticut's transportation infrastructure, following months of debate over electronic tolls.

It's a concept Gov. Ned Lamont has been considering as he reboots his stalled transportation improvement plan that had relied heavily on highway tolling and didn't get enough support in the General Assembly earlier this year.

"I think it's a big step in regards to something that we may be able to get consensus on and something that's fiscally feasible for the state of Connecticut and something that's affordable," said House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, following a closed-door briefing at Connecticut's Department of Transportation headquarters from the federal Build America Bureau about the available loan programs.\

"So, I think it is a game-changer in a lot of ways," she said. "As of today, I think this is something we should be hopeful about."

Friday's meeting comes as the Democratic governor is expected to present his new "CT 2030" transportation plan in the coming weeks. The Build America Bureau programs could be part of that initiative.

"This has been a summer of back to the drawing board. It's been a summer of the chief of staff looking for new solutions, along with Connecticut DOT, about how we can make Connecticut a better place 10 years from now," Max Reiss, Lamont's communications director, said in an interview.

Despite their unpopularity with many lawmakers, especially Republicans, tolls could still be part of Lamont's rebooted plan, albeit fewer than first proposed by the first-term governor.

"I think we're still looking at a user fee program," Reiss said. "But what you're not going to see is something that is on every highway, every bridge, every crossing. You're never going to see that again with this administration."

But after Friday's briefing, Democratic legislative leaders avoided talking about tolls, noting the federal programs allow repayment of loans for five years following substantial completion of construction, which Democratic House Majority Leader Matt Ritter of Hartford said would means up to 15 years in many cases.

"You have time to figure out revenue," he said.

Not everyone was impressed. Democratic Sen. Alex Bergstein of Greenwich questioned whether Connecticut's loan application might get squeezed out by New York, which is seeking funds for a massive rail tunnel project under the Hudson River, and other projects across the country.

"The numbers just don't add up to me," said Bergstein, who contends Connecticut needs new sources of revenue to fund transportation. "The feds are not going to bail us out."

Lamont has said for months that Connecticut needs additional revenue to fix its aging infrastructure. But his message on the subject has evolved. During last year's gubernatorial campaign, he called for tolls only on big trucks. But after his election victory, Lamont raised concerns about the legality of truck-only tolls and whether they'd even generate enough revenue. He then supported tolls for all drivers.

Lamont worked with supportive Democratic lawmakers on a plan for about 50 overhead tolling gantries on Interstates 84, 91, 95 and parts of Route 15. But the concept generated vocal opposition from citizens and legislative Republicans. There was also reluctance by many Democratic lawmakers to pass a tolling bill, and the session adjourned without a vote on tolls. Despite hope for a compromise over the summer, that didn't happen either.

Lamont now hopes his scaled-back proposal will be more palatable to lawmakers. He's also signaling he may use a long-delayed bonding bill, which includes borrowing for capital projects across the state, as political leverage to get something passed.

"The governor is very clear that any plan on bonding has to adequately address our transportation needs," Reiss said.