Residents to lawmakers: No tolls [Connecticut Post]

February 26, 2015

Article as it appeared in the Connecticut Post

HARTFORD — Residents across the state, and especially in southwestern Connecticut, resoundingly told a legislative committee Wednesday they don’t want highway tolls on the borders.

“This is a nightmare for me,” said Andrew Burke, a Greenwich business owner. “It will add traffic locally from toll dodgers and add daily expenses for deliveries.”

Joseph Jowdy, a Danbury resident, called tolls a tax that would hurt the state’s economy.

“No border tolls,” he said. “This is a tax on commuters. It will affect everything, including real estate sales.”

A public hearing before the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee on a bill to authorize electronic tolls at the state’s borders prompted more than 500 people to file opinions — mostly opposed — through the committee’s website.

A few dozen residents and state officials testified in person, including Cindy Penkoff, of Trumbull, who lost two cousins in a 1983 crash at a Stratford toll booth and now crusades against tolls.

“They were people I spent every minute of every day with,” Penkoff said of her lost cousins.

Electronic tolls

The bill before the committee does not call for old-fashioned toll booths. Instead, an archway placed over the highway would read license plates or E-ZPasses as cars travel underneath.

Drivers would pay via accounts set up through debit or credit cards. Traffic would not be delayed because vehicles wouldn’t have to slow down.

If the bill passes the General Assembly and is signed into law by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the state would begin a multiyear process of obtaining federal approval for a system of tolls along the border or possibly at other locations on various highways. Malloy has left the door open to tolls as a way to help fund his proposed $100 billion, 30-year transportation overhaul.

The committee also heard supportive testimony about bills that would place a “lock box” on the state’s special transportation fund, a pool of money set aside for road, bridge and rail projects. The fund has been frequently raided by lawmakers for everyday needs.

“The lock box has to be tight and not pickable,” said state Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, who also opposes tolls.

Stratford crash

Penkoff, a Trumbull Town Council member, told the committee she lost two family members — an 18-year old girl and 6-year old boy — during a horrific toll booth accident in Stratford caused by a truck driver who fell asleep and plowed into cars stopped at booths.

The accident prompted Connecticut to eliminate tolls, and Penkoff urged lawmakers not to reinstate them.

“The tale of the tolls goes something like this,” Penkoff said. “We want to put in these magic moneymakers so we can afford to give you nice smooth roads and safe trains.”

“What this proposal really does is spend money we don’t have, and will give you yet another fund to raid for the spending you refuse to cut,” Penkoff said.

The state needs to spend billions of dollars to fix its roads, bridges and an aging rail system. At the same time, more fuel-efficient cars means less gas tax revenue each year, while the federal government is cutting transportation funding for states.

“One advantage of tolls is it provides a sustainable revenue stream for transportation,” said state Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, co-chairman of the transportation committee. “Show me another way we can do this so I don’t have to pay out of my pocket.”

Fear of gridlock

State Rep. Janice Giegler, R-Danbury, said she fears tolls will worsen gridlock on highways and create gridlock on local roads as drivers try to avoid paying them.

“You can’t put a toll there and expect we are going to have a better flow of traffic,” Giegler said.

State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, ranking member of the Transportation Committee, said fixing the state’s deteriorating infrastructure is a “top concern,” but tolls are not the answer.

“If anything strikes a nerve with people, this is it,” Boucher said, referring to the deluge of opposition received by the committee.

But not everyone said tolls are a bad idea.

Albert Cerino, of Trumbull, said he favors tolls, noting most people paying a fee at a border toll would be from out of state.

“It is fair. Users pay and non-users are not penalized,” Cerino said.

Mike Sih, who did not provide an address in written testimony, agreed.

“We have to find new ways to replace the revenue to maintain and improve the infrastructure,” he said.

Dollars and cents

Exactly how much revenue tolls would generate is a matter of debate, and state officials could not provide an estimate. The state Department of Transportation is now studying tolls, including how much revenue they could provide.

“My feeling is the revenue potential is not high,” said state Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton.

Patrick Jones, executive director of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, said tolls are a sustainable source for transportation funding.

“More and more regions across the country are looking at a more sustainable system and that involves tolls,” Jones said. “It provides viable revenue.”

Michael Riley, president of the Motor Transport Association of Connecticut, said tolls are a bad idea and possibly illegal under the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause.

“Turning highways into cash cows for individual states is unfair to highway users, Riley said. “Often toll revenue doesn’t even end up funding highway projects.”

Ben Barnes, director of the state Office of Policy and Management, supported tolls as a way to pay for infrastructure upgrades, but also hinted there may be legal issues with tolls at every border.

“There are limits under federal law for border tolls,” Barnes said. “They may be part of the mix. But I’m not certain a comprehensive system could be implemented under current law.”

No new taxes

Any Benicewicz, purchasing manager for Chemical Marketing Concepts in New Milford, said Connecticut is already overtaxed.

“No border tolls or other new taxes,” Benicewicz said. “This is bad for business and safety.”

Michael Nisenbaum, of Stratford, a business owner who regularly sends technicians to New York City, said border tolls would add time and expense to an already time-consuming trip.

“It is already difficult enough to do business in Connecticut,” Nisenbaum said.