Sen. McLachlan: “Tolls are taxes. We are overtaxed already.” (CT Post)

May 1, 2014

HARTFORD — Proponents of bringing back tolls to Connecticut’s interstate highways were encouraged this week by President Barack Obama’s proposed transportation bill, which would give states flexibility to set up the next generation of high-tech roadway levies.

Rep. Antonio Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, co-chairman of the legislative Transportation Committee, said Thursday that it’s too late in the current General Assembly session to revive the controversial revenue-raiser for the next budget year.

But he took heart that the state may eventually get the green light for introducing tolls near the borders with New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Rep. David Scribner, R-Brookfield, ranking member of the Transportation Committee, said Thursday that with the history of state lawmakers raiding Connecticut’s dedicated Special Transportation Fund, he doubts tolls will go forward. He and other lawmakers warned that state residents who cross borders every day to go to work would rise up in opposition, or clog surface roads in ways to avoid tolls.

“Tolls will provide our state with an annual revenue stream of hundreds of millions, paid, in a significant measure, by out-of-state drivers,” Guerrera said in a statement reacting to the president’s four-year, $302 billion transportation plan. “This is the answer to the state’s declining gas tax revenues and will allow us to reduce Connecticut’s high gas tax rates. As cars get more efficient, gas tax receipts go down. Tolls, especially border tolls, will provide a stable source of revenue to invest in our transportation infrastructure. Modern tolls are not an inconvenience or safety hazard — you can drive past a transponder at highway speeds and have a toll billed to your plate number or be debited from an account.”

The bill, which would require congressional approval, would override current restrictions that allow tolls only to fund roadway widening or increasing capacity.

“They’re allowing the states to do what they want to raise their own revenue,” Guerrera said in an interview outside the House chamber. “The feds can’t afford all the money for the states. We can’t use the gas tax as a way to finance our infrastructure.”

Connecticut ended its use of tolls in October 1985, more than two years after the fiery crash that killed six, when a sleeping truck driver crashed his rig into a line of vehicles at the Stratford tolls.

Scribner, in an interview in the House GOP caucus room, said Thursday that the federal government has for years faced significant challenges.

“That’s not a new problem,” he said. “That has been an argument in recent years here in Connecticut as an excuse to create a new revenue source. But we have no discipline here in this Legislature or this administration as to what we use existing revenue sources for transportation.”

Scribner noted that last year, majority Democrats in the Legislature joined with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to divert $118 million from the Special Transportation Fund that was transferred to balance the $19 billion budget. A related law, in which he pushed for passage of a law banning such transfers in the future, was delayed until July 1 of 2015.

Scribner said that state residents don’t want the transportation fund raised.

“They want their bridges to be replaced and repaired and safe,” he said. “They want improvements to the rail system. They want all of the things that fall under the Department of Transportation’s Authority that need attention. And every time we use those funds for another purpose that’s not happening.”

Scribner said the president’s proposal definitely sends a message that might not work for Connecticut, where 80 percent of all transportation projects are paid by the federal funds because the state removed its tolls 29 years ago.

“We could potentially be held responsible to pay back the additional funding we’ve gotten for the last 30 years,” Scribner said. “It’s a lot more complicated than on the surface.”

“Tolls on Connecticut’s western border would drive motorists to take local roads to avoid them, creating traffic bottlenecks in those neighborhoods and additional air pollution,” said Sen. Michael A. McLachlan, R-Danbury, who serves on the Transportation Committee. “Border toll proponents say most of the toll revenue will come from non-Connecticut residents, but what about the person from greater Danbury who drives to the train station in Brewster, New York, every morning? Tolls are taxes.

“We are overtaxed already,” McLachlan said. “We need to get our spending under control. We need to get honest in how Connecticut taxpayers’ money is being handled.”