Sen. McLachlan: Border Tolls Are Unnecessary (Wall Street Journal)

February 25, 2015

Article as it appeared in the Wall Street Journal

A section of Interstate 95 in the Stamford, Conn., area is seen in a file photo. Photo: Mark Abramson for The Wall Street Journal

Drive to Reinstate Connecticut Tolls Would Start at Border
Legislative hearing set on bill that would reinstate some tolls to raise money for highway projects

By Joseph De Avila
Feb. 24, 2015

Connecticut abolished road tolls more than 30 years ago, and proposals to revive them have emerged repeatedly ever since. They go nowhere.

This year, however, the reinstatement of tolls may be gathering momentum because they are seen as an important source of funding for Gov. Dannel Malloy ’s $100 billion proposal to upgrade roads, bridges and rail system.

The state phased out tolls in the 1980s after a tractor trailer collided with cars lined up at a Stratford, Conn., toll booth. Seven people died in the fiery crash.

The Legislature’s transportation committee is scheduled to hold a hearing Wednesday in Hartford on a bill that proposes to reinstate tolls on major highways that cross the state’s borders to raise money for highway projects.

Similar bills have come up in the past, with the intent of capturing revenue from nonresident drivers. One such bill failed to pass two years ago.

Officials in border towns have argued that such tolls would punish people living there for going back and forth across the border and discourage out-of-state drivers from patronizing Connecticut businesses.

“It would make it difficult for us in Suffield,” said Edward G. McAnaney, first selectman of Suffield, which shares a border with Massachusetts and is near Interstate 91 between Hartford and Springfield, Mass.

Democratic state Rep. Antonio Guerrera, co-chair of the transportation committee and sponsor of the toll bill, says the legislation is needed to pay for highway projects because the state’s gas tax isn’t raising enough money as more drivers shift to cars that use less fuel.

Mr. Guerrera also said border tolls would require out-of-state travelers to pay their fair share.

“People are just cutting through the state and the residents are footing the bill,” said Mr. Guerrera, who represents Newington, Rocky Hill and Wethersfield in central Connecticut.

Toll prices haven’t been finalized.

A 2009 state-commissioned study found that placing tolls on major highways could raise $9 billion to $22 billion over 30 years depending on the toll rate.
If tolls do return to the state, toll booths wouldn’t, say advocates.

Instead, the state could use overhead electronic tolling structures that wouldn’t require drivers to stop. Cameras would record license plates to send bills in the mail for those that don’t have EZ-Pass.

The trucking industry says it opposes adding tolls to existing roads because Connecticut has one of the highest motor-fuel tax rates for heavy vehicles in the U.S.

“To ask us to pay more money on top of that is just over the top,” said Michael Riley, president of the Motor Transport Association of Connecticut.
Mr. Malloy, a Democrat, hasn’t come out in support of tolls but hasn’t ruled them out.

“Tolls are one way to pay for” transportation improvements, he said at an unrelated news conference in December. “There are other ways to pay for it.”

The governor is expected to appoint a commission in the coming weeks that would analyze funding sources, including tolls.

The task force is expected to produce options to pay for his 30-year transportation plan. That initiative included widening parts of Interstate 95.
Officials with the Malloy administration have said tolls alone won’t pay for everything the governor proposed.

Democratic leaders say tolls will likely be included in some format to help pay for highway improvements.

“What configuration the tolls will take we don’t know at this point, but I think it has to be considered if we are serious about undertaking a major initiative,” said Martin Looney, Democratic state Senate president pro tempore.

Some Republicans say border tolls are unnecessary.

“There are other ways of going about this without tolls, namely appropriate budget restraint,” said Republican state Sen. Michael McLachlan, who represents Danbury, on the New York border.

Mr. McLachlan said border tolls would discourage New York residents from visiting the Danbury Fair Mall. He said many of his constituents also travel to New York.

“Why should they have to spend all this extra money to go to work everyday?” he said.

Mr. Guerrera said the legislation could be crafted to give border town residents rebates for using tolls.

George Crouse, First Selectman of Stonington, on the border with Rhode Island, said residents may take local roads to avoid tolls.

“I would imagine local people would run away, if they are not in a rush, to use other roads to avoid this,” Mr. Crouse said.