Tolls steering state Capitol conversation [FoxCT]

January 15, 2015

Article as it appeared on
HARTFORD – With no federal assistance to fix Connecticut’s highways and bridges, and less revenue generated from the state’s gas tax, lawmakers are again test driving electronic tolls.

On Jan. 20, 1983, six people were killed and four people were injured in a toll booth accident on I-95 in Stratford. Two years later tolls disappeared from Connecticut’s highways.

Wednesday morning the legislature’s transportation committee briefly discussed some of the parameters to raise a bill on the matter. The next step is a public hearing, which could be scheduled to take place in the next couple of weeks.

State Rep. Tony Guerrera (D-Rocky Hill), the committee’s chairman, says the reason less revenue is coming in through what is one of the nation’s highest gas taxes is the constantly-improving fuel efficiency of cars. He feels that the cost of rebuilding roads and bridges has quadrupled in the last three decades, and his committee needs to find the right solution. It’s his belief electronic tolls are the right option.

“They use them in many other states and they raise a lot of money,” said Guerrera. “People travel through them at 65 mph. You don’t need an EZ Pass anymore. They take a picture of your plate and mail you the bill.”

Pricing and location of the tolls, he says, can be determined after a public hearing, during which the committee would also hear from experts on the subject.

Guerrera is proposing that if electronic tolls are installed, gas taxes must be reduced. He also suggests discount pricing or a tax rebate for Connecticut residents who for business purposes are forced to pass through these tolling zones regularly.

State Sen. Toni Boucher (R-Wilton), who represents several communities in southwestern Connecticut, says she is hearing from her constituents on tolls more than any other issue since the income tax debate more than 20 years ago. It’s largely because they don’t trust the politicians, she says.

“We’ve had the past practice where they’ve taken money that comes into our transportation fund and used it for other purposes, like the budget gap,” said Boucher.

To curb the urge to continue dipping into this crucial fund, Gov. Dannel Malloy called last week for a constitutional amendment that would force funds, earmarked for the transportation fund, to be used for those purposes only.

Some Connecticut residents would be happy to see tolls, but only at the borders.

“I think Connecticut is nothing more than a pass-through for the rest of the Northeast,” said Mike Gantos of North Haven.

His belief is correct, according to report commissioned by the state Department of Transportation, which says more than 70 percent of drivers that regularly use Connecticut’s highways are from out of state.

“If you have Connecticut tags, and you pay property tax on your car, then you have low or no toll,” suggests Gantos. “And then, if you are from out of state, then you pay a substantial toll, for cutting through Connecticut.”

Boucher says that approach would be unconstitutional, but adds that tolls anywhere would cause more stress on local roads for people trying to avoid them.

Some out-of-state drivers say they wouldn’t be opposed to tolls in Connecticut because they’re used to them.

“I want to ride on good roads and good bridges,” said Grant Headley of Dorchester, Massachusetts. “So, if I’ve got to pay a few bucks, I don’t mind.”

But it’s clear there are still many Connecticut residents who don’t understand that the legislature is not proposing that toll booths return to the state.

“I was here during the time when Stratford had the accident and I was a nurse at the hospital,” said Patti Rosen of Weston. “So, I have 100 percent strong feelings about not having tolls again.”

Guererra says if this measure were to pass, the soonest Connecticut would likely have operational electronic tolls would be sometime in 2017.