Toll Opponents, Border Towns Plead Their Cases [Hartford Courant]

February 26, 2015

Article as it appeared in the Hartford Courant

HARTFORD — Residents of Danbury, Greenwich, Enfield and other border towns deluged state legislators Wednesday with emails urging them to oppose highway tolls.

“It would almost appear to be political suicide for anyone to go down this path,” said Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, who is joining other Republicans in opposing tolls in Connecticut.

At least one Republican legislator from the Danbury region had promised last week to organize a show of strength from anti-toll voters at Wednesday’s hearing before the legislature’s transportation committee. That came to pass when several hundred emails — overwhelmingly against tolls — arrived for the committee members.

Opponents warn that border tolls would hurt towns near Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island because merchants could lose business from people who might decide not to drive into Connecticut. Connecticut residents who commute to jobs across the border also would suffer, opponents said, and local roads would be clogged with drivers trying to detour around the tolls.

“You are going to have backups of drivers seeking to avoid a toll on the exit ramps on I-95 and absolute mayhem if this body approves border tolls,” Sen. Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich, said at the hearing.

On the opposite side of the debate, Rep. Russ Morin, D-Wethersfield, hammered the concern for public safety: Connecticut faces billions of dollars of long-postponed maintenance work on roads and bridges with no money to pay for it.

“At some point we have to stop kicking the can,” Morin said. “A tragic accident brought tolls to an end in Connecticut. I’m concerned when I hear, ‘Let’s talk about it.'” He said he didn’t want to see a tragedy caused by poor maintenance force the state to hurriedly spend billions to improve its infrastructure.

Rep. Tony Guerrera, the committee’s co-chairman, challenged Republicans to come up with a different way to raise revenue.

“If there’s something else, show it to me. Put it on the table,” said Guerrera, who cautioned against counting on someone else to pay Connecticut’s expenses. “The feds don’t have money [for Connecticut]. They’ve been warning the states for years.”

An email to legislators from Andrew Burke, a Greenwich caterer, was representative of the opposition case.

“[Tolls] will add traffic locally from toll dodgers, and daily expense for deliveries from our location to our predominantly Connecticut-based clients, commuting delays and expense to go to my home in Old Greenwich,” he wrote.

“I believe the addition of tolls to I-91 is basically adding another tax to myself and the other residents of north central CT who find it necessary to travel into Mass. on occasion,” wrote Henry Bankowski of Enfield.

Shelton resident Angelica Barreira took a different view, writing that Connecticut’s old toll booths had been placed in the wrong locations.

“I feel that border tolls would be wonderful. As a commuter, a young mother, homeowner and taxpayer, tolls at the Connecticut borders can only help our state,” she wrote.

“The whole Northeast is loaded with toll roads, so we would fit in,” wrote Albert Cerino of Trumbull. “It is fair: Users pay, non-users are not penalized.”

The state tore down its toll booths in the 1980s after a fatal wreck at the Stratford tolls. Guerrera and others have been saying for years that modern tolling systems don’t use booths or even the cash-only lanes that older E-ZPass systems have in New England. The newer all-electronic tolling systems use transponders and overhead signals, and cameras also photograph license plates so drivers without transponders can be billed later.

That means all tolling would be done without extra lanes on highways, and without drivers ever slowing down to pay. Several Republican lawmakers at Wednesday’s hearing continued referring to the dangers of highway tolls, even after the head of an international trade association for toll operators explained that modern tolls don’t have any effect on highway traffic flow.