Sen. McLachlan: Border tolls would discriminate against greater Danbury residents (Hartford Courant)

February 20, 2015

Article as it appeared in the Hartford Courant
Lawmaker Pushes Tolls To Rescue Transportation Budget
Guerrera: Connecticut highway tolls could bring in nearly $20 billion, mostly from out-of-state drivers

By Don Stacom

Hartford Courant
February 20, 2015

HARTFORD — The day after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proposed the costliest transportation initiative in state history, Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, was campaigning for what he says is an obvious way to help pay for it: Highway tolls.

“This is something we should have done years ago. We’ve got a study that shows tolls could bring in nearly $20 billion in 30 years,” Guerrera said in an interview Thursday. “How do you say ‘no’ to that, when you know 75 percent of it would come from out-of-state drivers?”

Toll proponents and detractors have begun marshaling their supporters for next Wednesday, when the General Assembly’s powerful transportation committee convenes a hearing on whether to collect tolls on highways near the major border crossings from New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The tolls, in Guerrera’s plan, would not involve booths on the highway, but electronic transponders that let cars speed by.

Guerrera, the committee’s co-chairman, was a lone voice several years ago when he staked out the politically treacherous position of endorsing tolls. Since then, he has steadily hammered away at the idea, picking up a degree of support as Connecticut’s transportation funding outlook — much like the nation’s — has darkened. His central selling point has held steady: The state has no other way to pay for backlogged highway and bridge repairs.

“We know the gas tax won’t work, and we know that we have billions of dollars work that has to be done,” Guerrera said. “And we know our own drivers are paying tolls in New York, Massachusetts and other states.”

Republican lawmakers from the border communities are among the harshest critics of the idea.

“Border tolls would discriminate against Connecticut residents who live near a State line, including thousands of greater Danbury residents,” said Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury. “In addition, tolls are taxes, and we are overtaxed already. I will be doing a full court press from now until Wednesday to let my constituents know about this public hearing and how they can testify against this very bad idea.”

There’s plenty of opposition from the trucking lobby, too, which opposes tolls anywhere on existing interstates.

“This move is inefficient, inequitable and illegal,” Michael J. Riley, president of the Motor Transport Association of Connecticut, wrote last month in an op-ed in The Courant.

Nevertheless, some opponents appear to be hedging their bets. Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, is firmly in the anti-toll camp, but is proposing a state Constitutional amendment this year to ensure that if tolls ever come to Connecticut highways, the revenue must be used only for transportation.

That’s a measure that Guerrera endorses.

“Whatever we have to do to let our constituents know this money goes only to transportation infrastructure, let’s do it,” he said. “I’ll support a Constitutional amendment. The taxpayers should know we couldn’t be more serious about this.”

Cambridge Systematics, a transportation consulting firm reported to the General Assembly six years ago that border tolls could yield anywhere from $4 billion to more than $19 billion over 30 years, depending mostly on whether prices are set at $1, $3 or $5.

When Malloy presented his “Let’s Go CT!” $100 billion statewide transportation initiative on Wednesday, his budget director said no form of tolling could pay for all of it.

Guerrera countered that $20 billion would go a long way toward helping. Combined with regular year-to-year state funding and federal grants, it would bring the state a lot closer to the target, he said.

“Remember, we’re talking about 74.8 percent of this coming from out-of-state people who are just driving through,” he said. “At the same time, let’s cut our gas tax in half. Let’s give residents of the border towns a tax break if they document that they’re commuting [through tolls].”

Connecticut tore down its toll booths after a deadly crash at the Stratford I-95 toll plaza in 1983. Modern toll systems in Florida, Toronto and elsewhere use an advanced transponder technology that lets cars speed through at highway speed, Guerrera noted. For vehicles without transponders, overhead cameras would photograph license plates and mail bills to a car’s owner.

“It’s important to realize we’re not talking about going back to toll booths. There’s not stopping, no slowing,” said Guerrera, who promised to work with privacy advocates who want protection of individual’s recorded license plate and toll data.

“We can work out a lot of the concerns people have,” he said. “But what I’m saying is, let’s get our infrastructure into A-plus condition, let’s maintain it the way we should, and then hopefully we don’t have to revisit this for another century.”