Tolls? Looking for Revenue in all the Wrong Places

January 24, 2011

Each year there are numerous legislative proposals aimed at increasing the state’s revenue stream. Now more than ever, legislators are considering any and all means to do just this. Connecticut faces a $7.6 billion budget deficit over the next two fiscal years and it is the General Assembly’s task to responsibly close that gap while still providing necessary state services.

As a means to secure funding for the roads and bridges we travel each day, proposals have been drafted to levy tolls on our state’s highways. This notion is not new to the legislature, but is definitely one that garners controversy.

When the Connecticut Turnpike opened in January of 1958, tolls were originally collected through a series of eight booths. The state ceased all toll collection in December of 1985 due to a number of car accidents. Many of you may recall the most tragic incident, which occurred 1983 when a truck collided with four cars at a Stratford toll plaza resulting in the death of seven people.

This year, legislation has been drafted to bring eight toll stations back to our state. This proposal would put up tolls at entry points into Connecticut – along I-84, I-91, I-95, I-395, the Merritt Parkway, and Route 6. In place of actual toll booths, overhead electronic signals would be constructed to record each vehicle passing through.

Although the addition of toll stations across our state would generate revenue, it comes at a high cost. Taxpayer dollars would be required to fund the construction of these eight proposed tolls, and motorists would be responsible for purchasing an electronic transponder, such as an EZ-Pass. Those vehicles that pass through tolls without an EZ-Pass would be billed by the state, resulting in a further expense to taxpayers.

Currently, Connecticut receives federal funding for infrastructure projects and maintenance along the state’s interstate highways, but if Connecticut were to build toll stations that funding would become very limited. Under federal law, it appears that Connecticut may also have to repay the federal government substantial sums if tolls were to be placed on existing highways. The federal government has the authority to collect back any monies given to the state that support roadwork.

Connecticut’s border towns are not welcoming this proposal either. Traveling motorists looking to avoid the added fee may be inclined to use secondary roadways to circumvent toll stations. Not only will this create traffic and congestion among these border communities, but there are environmental and infrastructural impacts. The increased amount of vehicles would result in poor air quality as well as damaged roads which the state and municipalities would be responsible for fixing.

Other border towns fear that these proposed tolls will affect business. They worry travelers will be less likely to visit and invest in their communities. If these tolls act as a deterrent, Connecticut’s border towns would lose a great deal of revenue.

Advocates resist negative claims saying that the reinstating of tolls would actually benefit Connecticut’s infrastructure. Legislators backing the proposal promise that all revenue generated would go back into the state’s roads and bridges, but given Connecticut’s weakened economy, it is more likely that money will go towards the deficit. Governor Malloy has made similar statements doubting the legislature’s willingness to “lockbox revenue for transportation purposes,” and plans to reject building tolls in Connecticut.

In light of Connecticut’s fiscal crisis additional revenue is necessary, but at what price? Reinstating tolls is essentially another tax to maintain Connecticut’s costly spending habits. Rather than spend money the state does not have, we in the legislature should adopt policies that reduce government excess in order to maintain our infrastructure and necessary services. It is time to support our state’s families and businesses as well as welcome travelers into our state.