Tolls in Connecticut; More Complicated than Some Might Think

January 27, 2010

Why don’t we reinstitute tolls in Connecticut? It’s a question that always seems to come up whenever the state is facing any sort of budget shortfall. With the creation of electronic tolls, the process for collection is certainly different than it was when tolls were taken off state roadways in the 1980’s. But many of the same questions still remain.

Federal law has continuously placed restrictions on the ability of states to place tolls on interstate highways. This actually dates back to the mid-1950’s when Congress developed the Interstate Highway System (IHS). Under this, all roads that fell under the federally funded highway system were required to be toll free. At the time, Connecticut and a host of interstate highways in other states (including New York and Massachusetts) kept their tolls in place, but in return no federal funds could be used for any highway construction or improvement project. Money raised through the tolls would go towards this purpose.

Following a deadly crash in early 1983, where a tractor-trailer smashed into the Stratford toll center along I-95 killing seven people, Connecticut executed a Secretarial Agreement with the federal government to remove state tolls. The loss of toll revenue opened the door for the state to begin receiving federal funds to pay for highway improvements.

Over the past decade, any notion of bringing tolls back to Connecticut would raise the question about whether the state would have to repay the federal funds the state received since the tolls were taken down. The answer, according the Office of Legislative Research (OLR), is “Yes, federal funds must be repaid.” Thus, the state would be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions when factoring in debt service, in federal reimbursements.

As with just about everything, there are exceptions and here is where it gets tricky.

Changes to the federal law over the years has allowed for certain exemptions to the toll prohibition. Most of these exemptions deal with the construction of NEW highways, bridges and tunnels, and the reconstruction of existing ones.

There are other exceptions, such as the use of high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes by single occupancy vehicles. Tolls could be constructed in these lanes for such vehicles, however strict HOV lane performance standards must be maintained in order for the exemption to remain in place. Connecticut has a handful of HOV lanes, but not enough to make any economic sense when it comes to placing tolls in these lanes.

Another question surrounds non-interstate highways, such as Route 8 which travels from I-95 in Bridgeport up through Torrington and into Massachusetts. While no federal law would prohibit tolls from being placed on these roads, a host of other issues would be raised, many of which were around when the last toll was taken down in 1985. Concerns about the environment, safety and the potential traffic they would have on local roads are certainly among those issues. There is also a fear that tolls would disproportionally hurt commuters in certain parts of the state. What’s more, in a 2009 report to the legislature, OLR indicated that the vast majority of highway travel in Connecticut takes place on its interstates, making tolls on non-interstate expressways less effective.

Also in 2009, an outside consultant report (Cambridge Systematics, Inc.), prepared for the Connecticut Transportation Strategy Board and the Office of Policy and Management, was able to determine certain concepts where tolls could be reinstituted in the state. Most of the concepts dealt with highway expansion that would end up costing the state more in construction than it would providing any financial benefit.

As you can see, bringing tolls back to Connecticut’s roads is much more complicated than just simply enacting legislation. Not only that, but it would do little to help alleviate the $500 million deficit in the General Fund, since all potential money generated from tolls would have to go back into highway construction and improvements – NOT the General Fund.

If you have questions regarding tolls in Connecticut or any other issue, please contact me at 1-800-842-1421.