Report On ‘Congestion’ Tolls Expected To Heat Up Connecticut Debate [Hartford Courant]

March 6, 2015

Article as it appeared in the Hartford Courant

HARTFORD — Highway toll advocates and opponents are bracing for a public relations battle in early spring when consultants report on whether Connecticut should try to charge “congestion pricing” tolls on I-91 and I-84.

The consultant, CDM Smith, is expected to tell lawmakers in the next one to two months how much all-electronic tolls would cost, how much revenue they would bring in, and whether drivers would divert to side streets to escape the cost.

The General Assembly and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy will then face a choice: Seek a federal waiver to allow Connecticut to put up tolls on those two highways, pursue some other option, such as border tolls, or drop the idea altogether. If lawmakers want to act this year, they may have only a month or two between the release of the CDM Smith reports and the end of the legislative session.

The CDM Smith studies will focus on “congestion pricing” tolls, which are usually used to manage traffic at overloaded spots on highways, as well as to generate revenue. Such tolls are put on one lane where drivers may pay to get a faster trip; the other lanes, without tolls, would have more cars and move more slowly. Congestion pricing in other states is usually used near metropolitan centers, and the variable rates are set highest at rush hours and lowest at low-traffic times, such as weekends or late nights.

Since all-electronic tolling requires only an overhead gantry, transponders and cameras, there would be no delays when prices are raised or lowered — just a notification on an electronic sign.

A contingent of Republican legislators is adamant that Connecticut should drop the toll idea altogether, and Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, recently worked with colleagues from the Danbury area to organize a wave of “vote no on tolls” emails to the Transportation Committee. Hundreds of messages poured in last week, running overwhelming against tolls.

“The public is weighing in on this issue in a big way,” Boucher said in a statement late last week.

Boucher posted an online survey supposedly to measure public opinion about border tolls, but it included a link to an anti-toll petition after the sentence, “If you have already made up your mind and adamantly oppose border tolls please sign our petition by clicking here.”

Boucher’s survey acknowledged that an “enhanced” gas tax could be one alternative, but made no mention of new sales taxes, tax surcharges or other options that various states have used in the past couple of years. Deteriorating highways, bridges and transit systems and stagnant revenues have driven a number of states, including Florida, Texas and Missouri, to either expand existing toll systems or propose new taxes dedicated to transportation.

“I have preliminary survey results conducted by my office that reveal that 82.5 percent of constituents from my part of the state are against border tolls, 12 percent are in favor and the other 5.5 percent are undecided,” according to Boucher, the top Republican on the Transportation Committee.

Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, said it’s not surprising that a survey would get negative responses when voters are asked if they want to pay more. But with billions of dollars of overdue maintenance projects, a nearly bankrupt Special Transportation Fund and no real hope of new federal money, the state simply can’t keep delaying and postponing, he said.

“I keep saying ‘Show me a better way to pay for this,’ and they keep saying nothing,” Guerrera said. “I understand people don’t want to pay more. But doing nothing just isn’t an option any more. And if we can get out-of-state drivers to pay 75 percent of the cost by using tolls, that seems a lot better for Connecticut than raising some other tax.”

Guerrera said he’s committed to trying to get some form of toll bill through his committee this session. His preference is to levy tolls on I-91, I-95, I-84 and I-395 where they enter Connecticut, a system known as border tolls. He said Connecticut residents near those borders could get some form of rebate or tax break to compensate for some of their expenses if they commute daily to jobs across the border.

Opponents such as Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, warn that targeting border traffic would send toll-dodgers onto already congested local streets.

“Border tolls would turn Greater Enfield’s roadways into parking lots,” Kissel said Tuesday. “What do you think Route 5, Route 75, Route 159 or other roads will look like after you put up $3, $5 or even $7 tolls? Think of the traffic during the Big E, and multiply that by 10. That’s what you’ll see in Enfield, Granby, Somers, and Suffield as people avoid the I-91 tolls.”

Guerrera and other toll advocates say that concern is overstated, and note that tolling is common in more than 30 other states. New technology lets drivers maintain highway speed and never stop or slow for the toll, so the prospect of hundreds of cars and trucks trying to escape traffic by taking local roads just isn’t realistic, they say.

Connecticut is one of 15 states pursuing a federal pilot program that could allow tolling on highways where it has traditionally been prohibited. The state commissioned CDM Smith more than a year ago to perform the federally funded studies, and will use the conclusions when deciding if — or how — to seek federal permission to actually install tolls.