Will Tolls Be Coming to A Highway Near You?

January 9, 2015

As the 2015 legislative session begins, the issue of tolls has once again been brought to the forefront of Connecticut’s transportation policy debate. Doubts about the prospect of reintroducing tolls on our highways have also resurfaced.

The question now, as in previous years, is whether the legislature and the administration are prepared to add tolls on top of the highest gas tax in the nation. Connecticut’s gas tax is made up of a $0.25 excise tax, and an 8.1% gross receipts tax. Diesel is also taxed at the rate of $0.545. If the price of tolls were added on top of this high cost, we would further exacerbate Connecticut’s reputation as the most expensive state in which to live, retire or do business. Though I have asked before whether the reintroduction of tolls would occasion the reduction or elimination of the gas tax, I have never been answered.

Toll supporters have reiterated that the revenue generated by tolls would be necessary to sustain our transportation infrastructure. It will take more evidence to convince me that reintroducing tolls – particularly border tolls- on our highways is the answer. As many have pointed out, raiding of funds nominally reserved for transportation has been a common practice. There are very real concerns that revenues derived from tolls would not be used for transportation infrastructure given that current Department of Transportation (DOT) special transportation funds are routinely siphoned off to fund other departments of government or to close operating budget deficits.

The Governor recently attempted to address this problem by proposing a lock box that would reserve transportation funds for transportation needs. However the administration’s proposal would still contain significant loopholes that would prevent funds from being secured for transportation needs only. In order for this lock box to work, it would have to apply not only to fees collected from tolls, but also from rails, the DMV and other sources. Transportation expenses from other state departments must not be moved into the transportation budget, and the normal budget subsidy to the Special Transportation Fund must not be reduced to offset any increase in revenue from tolls. Only when these and other potential loopholes are closed will I have confidence that the lock box would work as intended.

Yet even if tolls were put in place, there is reason to doubt that they would bring in as much revenue as their proponents suggest. New technologies and electronic tolling mechanisms exist to fine violators who pass through tolls without an E-Z pass, but studies show that 20%-30% of those fined never pay. According to experts, until there is national interoperability i.e. transponders that can be used to go through all tolls, anywhere in the nation, it will be difficult to collect from scofflaws.

The prospect of tolls has also revived skepticism among many residents who feel that this is yet another example of the state reaching into the pockets of hardworking citizens. This is why past attempts to reinstate tolls have taken a torturous route through the legislature, with strong opposition coming from residents in the Greenwich and Danbury areas. Border tolls would have a disproportionate impact on those living in Connecticut towns near New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and who must cross the border to get to work. Those communities will also suffer from increased congestion due to diversion, as many drivers may cut through local neighborhoods in order to avoid the tolls.

We should also remember the tragic Stratford Toll Plaza crash in 1983, which killed six people and consider the possible dangers of reinstating tolls on our highways. The means to adequately funding our transportation infrastructure should be found by ending the raids on the Special Transportation Fund and ensuring that those monies go where they are most needed.

Since the Governor is determined to make transportation a top priority this session, it is more important than ever that the people of Connecticut contact their elected officials and make sure that their opinion on this issue is heard.