Sen. Kissel: “It would be a horror show to have tolls impacting north-central Connecticut and the I-91 corridor.” (Journal Inquirer)

February 26, 2015

Toll plan sparks pileup
By Mike Savino
Journal Inquirer
Thursday, February 26, 2015

HARTFORD — Many lawmakers and residents from the state’s border towns Wednesday criticized a proposal to put tolls on highways that run through their towns, saying the proposal would unfairly burden them with funding the state’s transportation upgrades.

Office of Policy and Management Secretary Benjamin Barnes, testifying on a separate bill, told the Transportation Committee during a public hearing that the state would need more revenue for transportation projects.

But opponents of border tolls said any efforts to collect such payments would push drivers from highways to local roads or deter potential people from entering the state.

“Border tolls are not fair, just, or equitable for residents in Connecticut,” Rep. David Alexander, D-Enfield, said, arguing that it wouldn’t be fair to levy tolls on Enfield residents who travel a few miles to a job in Massachusetts, while residents could travel any distance within state without facing tolls.

An exchange between Alexander and Transportation Committee co-Chairman Rep. Antonio Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, summarized many of the arguments made by both sides.

As Alexander argued that border tolls would unfairly burden those in his district, Guerrera said many Connecticut residents go to Massachusetts for gas or shopping, but fewer Massachusetts residents do the same in Connecticut.

He said charging tolls on the borders would shift some of the burden of maintaining the state’s roadways to out-of-state residents and away from Connecticut taxpayers.

As Alexander continued to protest, Guerrera said that funding for the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line, which includes a planned stopped in Enfield is “not going to come out of the air.”

“Everyone wants something but they don’t want to pay for it,” Guerrera said.

His remarks came a few hours after Barnes told the committee that the Special Transportation Fund, funded by the gas tax, will not be able to cover the cost of maintaining the state’s current infrastructure by 2018.

Barnes said the gap is expected to grow to $225 million by 2020, and that figure doesn’t include any additional transportation projects.

Barnes, who testified in support of a mandate that money intended for transportation goes to that purpose, said he doesn’t think tolls alone would make up the difference.

He also was critical of border tolls specifically, saying the charge needed to have an effect on revenue likely would deter drivers from using the highway.

And Alexander wasn’t the only resident of a border town to raise that concern. Sen. John A. Kissel, R-Enfield, testified that “it would be a horror show to have tolls impacting north-central Connecticut and the I-91 corridor.”

Kissel said that routes 75, 159, and 5 all intersect or run parallel to Interstate 91 and would allow residents to enter Massachusetts without paying a toll.

Rep. Peggy Sayers, D-Windsor Locks, said many of the roads already see increased congestion during the summer due to traffic for Six Flags in Agawam, Massachusetts, or the Big E, in West Springfield, and tolls only would increase the problem.

Legislators representing towns along or near the New York border raised the same concerns, as did most of the more than 300 people — some lawmakers put the number closer to 500 — who submitted written testimony.

But one member of the public, International Bridge, Tunnel, and Turnpike Association CEO Patrick Jones testified that tolls would be beneficial for the state.

“One of the advantages of tolls is that it provides an ongoing revenue stream” for transportation projects, he said.

Jones, who is originally from Simsbury and now heads a trade association for tolling agencies and others, said the state has a number of options when it comes to tolls.

He said the state should opt for electronic tolls, which would consist of an overhead structure that detects devices that are linked to prepaid accounts, similar to the E-Z Pass.

Cameras would capture the license plates of drivers who don’t have devices and the state could bill them, although Jones said some states let a driver pass a toll a few times before doing so.

He also said the structures don’t require booths or drivers to slow down, let alone stop. The state removed tolls in 1985 after seven people died two years earlier when their vehicle was struck while they were stopped at a booth.

A family member of some of those killed in the accident was among those on Wednesday who raised concerns about safety.

But those calling for tolls referenced another tragic incident: The collapse of the Mianus River Bridge in Greenwich in 1983, which prompted the state to create the Special Transportation Fund.

While some lawmakers pointed to the outpouring of opposition at the hearing, both written and oral, Guerrera cited a 2013 Quinnipiac University poll that found 55 percent of respondents said they would support tolls if the money went to transportation.

Barnes also told the committee that he believes more residents would accept tolls if they were confident that the money would go to transportation.

He supports Malloy’s so-called “lock box” proposal, which is a constitutional amendment that would require all money in the Special Transportation Fund go to transportation, and a statute requiring the same until such the amendment could pass.

An amendment requires approval from voters in a statewide election, which couldn’t happen until November 2016.

Some members of the committee questioned if the amendment would be strict enough on how it defines transportation-related uses, but Barnes warned that being too specific could be harmful in the future.

He said legislators likely wouldn’t have seen a need for wireless Internet access on trains in 1990, for example.

Barnes said a statute could be stricter because the legislature controls it, but also suggested that lawmakers who violate it would need to answer to their constituents.

“If a future legislature does that, I strongly hope that they either do it with the consent of their electorate or that they’re voted out of office,” he said.