Proposals For Highway Tolls Creep Ahead On Partisan Vote [Hartford Courant]

March 7, 2013

Article as it appeared in the Hartford Courant on March 6, 2013

By DON STACOM, [email protected] Hartford Courant
8:46 p.m. EST, March 6, 2013

In a vote along party lines, a legislative committee took the smallest possible step Wednesday toward bringing tolls to Connecticut highways.

By a 17-12 vote, lawmakers inched two bills closer to a possible decision by the full General Assembly this session. One bill would allow electronic tolls to fund the extension of Route 11, and the other would establish electronic tolls on Connecticut’s interstates at the New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island borders, while scaling down the gas tax by half.

Senator Boucher comments on the bill during a meeting of the Transportation Committee

The transportation committee’s vote Wednesday was largely procedural, and any prospect of a floor vote by the General Assembly vote is still far off.

“This doesn’t mean they’ll see the light of day,” committee Co-Chairman Tony Guerrera, a Rocky Hill Democrat, said.

Even advocates acknowledge that odds are against tolls getting approved this year. Instead, Wednesday’s vote may prove to be mostly about laying groundwork for future toll initiatives.

All 17 “yes” votes came from Democrats, and all opponents were Republicans.
A few lawmakers who voted “no” left open the possibility that they’d support some limited form of tolling in the future, especially if the state gas tax were reduced at the same time. But most opponents sounded resolute.

Sen. Toni Boucher, a GOP leader on the committee, called the idea “very wrong” public policy, and Sen. Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich, warned that border tolls would unfairly burden residents and businesses in the towns affected, such as Enfield and Danbury.

Committee Vice Chairman Andrea Stillman, a Democrat, said opponents simply ignore the hard truth that Connecticut’s gas tax isn’t raising enough money to maintain its roads and bridges.

“We have a problem in Connecticut and we don’t seem to have the guts to address it,” Stillman said. She emphasized that she wouldn’t support tolls unless the 48.5-cent-a-gallon gas tax is cut simultaneously.

Guerrera challenged the other side to offer alternatives. With federal highway aid falling and gas tax revenues declining, Connecticut has no prospect of raising the money it needs for overdue road maintenance and bridge repairs, he said. The transportation department has cited a backlog of more than $3 billion in projects.

“I’m not a Yale graduate, but it’s either raise the gas tax to where we’re spending close to $10 a gallon or it’s this — or you find another way,” he said. “Are you telling me our roads are as good as they were 20 or 30 years ago? I don’t believe it. The highways aren’t getting better, we’re not out there fixing bridges.”

Frantz said the General Assembly should first block any raids on the Special Transportation Fund, which several administrations in a row have tapped to bolster the general fund. Guerrera and others concede that some form of “lockbox” would be necessary to ensure toll revenue is spent exclusively on transportation; opponents say future governors and lawmakers would find a way around any safeguard.

The vote Wednesday merely sends the two proposals to legal staff for adjustments, a necessary step before the transportation committee votes whether to recommend them. Even if the bills get through that, they’d be reviewed by at least one other committee before going to the full General Assembly.

Lawmakers from both parties chuckled when Boucher suggested that tolls would be political disaster for Democrats.

“It would be a boon to the Republican Party if this went through,” she said.