Sen. Kissel: “Put ill-advised border tolls idea in a long-term traffic jam.”

February 26, 2013

Article as it appeared in Journal Inquirer
Published: Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Lawmakers are taking a serious look at adding tolls to major highways and on state borders to raise money for highway infrastructure projects.

“I’m concerned about if the infrastructure’s going to be able to hold up,” Rep. Timothy D. Larson, D-East Hartford, said. “We don’t have the revenue stream coming into the state of Connecticut to support the infrastructure.”

Larson is a member of the legislature’s Transportation Committee, which held a public hearing on a series of bills that would authorize toll booths in the state. It has been 30 years since the January 1983 crash at a Stratford toll plaza that killed seven people and ended highway tolls in the state.

Toll supporters say their newfound interest is sparked by an aging highway system and decreased state revenue projections, particularly from the tax on gasoline. And lawmakers learned last week that the federal government is likely to ease its restrictions on tolling — reinstating tolls currently would cost the state federal transportation funding.
Larson said the poorly maintained stretch of Route 2 through East Hartford is an example of the state’s infrastructure funding falling short.

“Route 2 is a mess,” Larson said. “We’re in trouble and we need this revenue to help us get our stuff straight.”

Proponents describe tolls as a revenue stream that’s now more feasible because of technology. Traditional toll booths would be replaced with electronic-only tolling. And tolls could be charged only during rush hour, for example, or only in an “express lane” or the HOV lane, with drivers who don’t pay tolls more likely to get stuck in traffic.

“It’s getting harder to make an intellectual case against having tolls,” Rep. Steven T. Mikutel, D-Griswold, said. “People who use the roads should pay for the roads. It’s hard to be against that.”

Opponents questioned whether the money from tolling would be raided to support the state budget, rather than being reserved for transportation infrastructure projects.

That was the point Sen. Antonietta Boucher, R-Wilton, raised. Lawmakers repeatedly have raided funds raised by the gas tax intended for road projects.

Committee Co-chairman Rep. Antonio Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, said any new tolls would be accompanied with a statutory “lock box,” to keep the money from being used in the general budget.

The state needs to find a new source of revenue, Guerrera said, because cars are becoming more fuel efficient and taxes on gasoline are bringing the state less and less.

“We can’t rely on one stream of income,” he said.

One of the bills considered Monday would charge tolls only at the state’s borders. It’s aimed at taking advantage of the state’s position between New York City and Boston.

But the proposal drew opposition from border-town lawmakers, who say such a move would push traffic onto local roads.

“When it comes to tolls, why is it that we focus on the borders?” Rep. David Alexander, D-Enfield, asked.

People in Enfield are used to driving to Massachusetts — Springfield is closer than Hartford — and putting a toll on the border would make that more expensive, he said.

“We’re a little more in-tune and culturally connected to western” Massachusetts, Alexander said.

Sen. John A. Kissel, R-Enfield, also opposes border tolling and tolls altogether.

“We just endured the largest tax hike in state history. Border tolls represent yet another tax on state residents,” Kissel said in a letter to lawmakers. “I urge you to put this ill-advised border tolls idea in a long-term traffic jam.”