Greater Danbury lawmakers oppose border tolls to raise money for transportation [Danbury News-Times]

January 5, 2015

Article as it appeared in the Danbury News-Times

If the sentiments of the Greater Danbury legislative delegation are any indication, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy faces a serious uphill battle over any proposal to reinstitute highway tolls in Connecticut, particularly on its borders.

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers said the idea is a “no way, no how” proposition because it would impede the region’s economic recovery. The need for transportation improvements is not in doubt, they conceded, but the money will have to come from somewhere else.

“Connecticut is not a theme park where we share admission to attend, especially for those who live here and commute back and forth over the line every day,” said veteran Democratic state Rep. Robert Godfrey, of Danbury. “If we’re making it more difficult for working class families to just find a job and drive to work, that is not my idea of fair and just.”

GOP state Sen. Toni Boucher, of Wilton, agreed.

“The reintroduction of tolls would be another tax on top of the highest gas taxes in the country.” she said. “This would further burden Connecticut’s overtaxed commuters and the business sector.”

Malloy will be sworn in for his second term on Jan. 7, the start of the new legislative session. His transportation proposals are expected to be unveiled in February.

On Dec. 29 at the Capitol, Malloy told reporters that transportation will be a key focus of his new administration, and floated the idea of tolls as a way of raising money to fund multimillion-dollar projects.

But Godfrey wondered how much the governor will push on an issue that has already aroused significant opposition everywhere but in the middle part of the state.

And Boucher asked a question echoed by many: Would tolls generate enough revenue to justify the inconvenience and aggravation they would create?

“People are very suspicious that this proposed new source of funding will be used to plug holes in the state budget,” said Boucher, ranking member of the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee. “Raiding the special transportation fund has been a common practice by current and past administrations. That is why a constitutional amendment to “lock the box” on transportation fees is a proposal that so many of us have introduced and supported.”

Another legislative veteran, Brookfield State Rep. David Scribner, said he has spent years compiling a briefcase full of research on tolls, and the evidence strongly suggests the negatives outweigh the advantages.

As it stands, the federal government rewards states without tolls with hundreds of millions of dollars to use for enhanced transportation; Connecticut’s share is now about $500 million a year. Scribner said he would rather continue saying `thank you’ for that money than to try plugging the half-billion dollar budget hole that would open if tolls are instituted.

Tolls could cost commuters $50 or more a week, Scribner said, “and that’s not insignificant.”

State Sen. Michael McLachlan said tolls are “an unfair tax,” particularly in his district, where some 10,000 residents commute to New York City on a daily basis.

Rather than impose tolls, Republican State Rep. Mitch Bolinsky, of Newtown, said, the General Assembly needs to put a “lock box on the (special) transportation fund and reinvest into the infrastructure.”

Scribner helped lead passage of a measure last year that prevents legislators from using that fund for anything other than transportation. But that could be repealed as part of a budget; only a constitutional amendment approved by voters could prohibit redirection of the money.

Bolinsky has backed efforts to make Connecticut a more business-friendly state, and tolls are the antithesis of those efforts, he said.

“It is no secret that our part of the region is the economic engine of Connecticut,” Bolinksy said. “Why would you put up a barrier to that? It’s not smart.”