A top preservationist for the Merritt Parkway says it doesn’t make sense to exempt the historic road from tolls, telling Gov. Ned Lamont in an email that it won’t sway opposition lawmakers to support tolls and would likely cause more traffic jams.
“Installing tolls on 95,84, and 84 but not on the Merritt Parkway would likely worsen congestion on the Merritt Parkway,” Peter Malkin, the chairman of the Merritt Parkway Conservancy, wrote to Lamont Friday.
Malkin emphasized that he was speaking as an individual and not for the group, which has not taken a position on tolls.
The influential real estate magnate, who is a Greenwich resident like Lamont, was responding to a report by The Courant that the governor discussed keeping tolls off the parkway last month with Rep. Livvy Floren, R-Greenwich, a staunch opponent of tolls.
“Avoiding tolls on the Merritt Parkway is very unlikely to convert opponents to supporters of tolls,” Malkin wrote.
Lamont is trying to shore up support for his contentious proposal with less than one month until the end of the legislative session. Republicans have put forward an alternative known as Prioritize Progress that relies exclusively on borrowing money by reallocating money from other construction projects, such as schools.
“The governor appreciates the feedback he’s receiving from all across the state, including from Mr. Malkin, that tolls are necessary to get our state moving again in a way that doesn’t require the state to take out an $11.2 billion loan for which Connecticut residents will be on the hook 100 percent,” said Rob Blanchard, a top Lamont aide. "All bills that passed out of the legislature’s Transportation Committee in March included tolls on the Merritt Parkway.
In an interview Friday, Lamont said he brainstormed various toll options with lawmakers in recent weeks to try to get people on board with his plan to install tolls on three interstates and Route 15, which encompasses the Merritt and Wilbur Cross parkways.
The Democrat, who campaigned on tolling out-of-state trucks only and reversed course a month into office, said he’s open to reducing Connecticut’s gas tax, the seventh-highest in the nation, once tolls are up and running. Transportation officials have said it would take four to five years until the first toll revenues come in.
Lamont contends that singling-out trucks from other states won’t stand up to court challenges from the trucking industry and won’t raise the money Connecticut needs to fix its crumbling and gridlocked transportation infrastructure. Tolling all vehicles would generate $800 million annually, according to Lamont’s administration, which has estimated that out-of-state motorists would foot 40 percent of the toll bill.
“The people get it. They know how important it is that we fix our transportation system,” Lamont said. “I’ve just got to convince folks in [the Capitol].”
Malkin told Lamont that he personally supports tolls, with short-term borrowing bridging the gap for transportation funding until the first toll revenues are collected.
“Such a user fee is necessary to help Connecticut restore its financial health and infrastructure,” Malkin wrote. “It does not make sense for Connecticut to be an outlier within the region on this issue. Toll revenue should not be restricted to highway restoration and maintenance. The need for rail and rail bridge improvement is at least equally great and improved rail service will reduce highway congestion.”
Tolls, which were common on Connecticut roads for generations, were eliminated from highways during the 1980s after a fatal crash that killed seven people at the Stratford toll plaza in 1983. Tolls were removed from the Merritt Parkway in 1988. Lamont’s plan for electronic tolls would not require creation of toll plazas or booths.
Opened in 1938 and designated as “endangered” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Merritt Parkway spans 37 miles from the state line in Greenwich to the Housatonic River in Stratford. It has been the source of frequent tension between transportation officials and preservationists, who have fought tree clearing and sued the state over an interchange project at Route 7 in Norwalk.
Malkin, whose family controls the Empire State Building and who is the father-in-law of U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, alluded to those battles in his email to Lamont.
“Expenditures by the [Connecticut] DOT must be more carefully monitored,” Malkin wrote. “Very costly , wasteful, proposed projects such as the Route 7/Merritt Parkway Interchange and the mislocated and misconceived Stamford Public Garage are examples.”
Malkin’s correspondence with Lamont also discussed protecting the aesthetics of the scenic roadway, which is known for its Art Deco bridges.
“It should be possible to avoid unsightly and legally problematic overhead stanchions on the national landmark Merritt Parkway by installing the license plate reading monitors under the bridges and overpasses of the Merritt Parkway,” Malkin wrote.
Floren said she told Lamont that she could not support the governor’s toll plan, even if the Merritt Parkway was somehow exempted.
“He knows how anti-toll I am, and he said what do I think?” Floren said Thursday. “I was very heartened by that, but I don’t think it’s enough.”
Neil Vigdor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org