Toll fight taking shape [Danbury News-Times]

March 9, 2015

Article as it appeared in the Danbury News-Times

From U.S. 1 in Greenwich to Mill Plain Road in Danbury, the communities that are the gateways to Connecticut now find themselves bound together in a common cause: fighting highway tolls

The shared opposition has created strange bedfellows and the potential for political leverage among localities.

But could lawmakers representing those who live on the state’s borders have the clout to stop highway tolls from being brought back after a 30-year absence? And is there any political sweetener that could make toll foes change their minds?

“It’s a game of incrementalism,” said Mark Bough-ton, the longtime Danbury mayor. “For the first time in a long time, it’s got more legs than it’s had in the past. So I’m sure you could see towns getting together and chipping in to hire their own attorneys. Could all those groups get together and hire a lobbyist? Absolutely.”

Driving the debate over tolls is Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s 30-year transportation blueprint, which calls for the widening of interstates 95 and 84, sweeping improvements to Metro-North Railroad and an overhaul of the state’s aging network of bridges. The cost is estimated at $100 billion, which could be at least partially covered by revenue from highway tolls.

“I understand that the border towns feel that they’re at a disadvantage,” said state Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, co-chairman of the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee. “We can use every penny there is right now. People are ruining our roads, and they don’t pay for anything.”

Guerrera, who represents an area near the center of the state, is once again leading the push to install high-speed tolls on the borders. The logistics, including the exact location of tolls and their cost, have yet to be fleshed out publicly.

The prevailing wisdom is that lawmakers will look to put tolls on Interstate 84 in Danbury near the Brewster, N.Y., line and at Greenwich’s borders with Port Chester, N.Y., on Interstate 95 and Rye Brook, N.Y., on the Merritt Parkway.

On the edges

While he is open to giving discounts to commuters who live near the border, Guerrera balked at installing tolls in interior portions of the state.

“If we put them in the interior, are we just penalizing the people of this state?” Guerrera said.

It could take much more than a discount to get Guerrera’s colleagues from the fringes of Connecticut to budge on tolls, however.

“It’s a nonstarter,” said state Sen. L. Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich, a Transportation Committee member. “I still think tolls are another form of taxation. We’ll be fighting it all the way.”

Frantz, who represents parts of Stamford and New Canaan, favors redirecting $450 million in the state budget for bonding capacity toward transportation, along with using savings from operating expenses to pay for improvements. There is nothing that could convince him to flip, he said.

“That’s not the way I operate,” Frantz said.

Connecticut is the only state in the region without highway tolls, eliminating them three decades ago after a deadly pileup at the Stratford toll plaza on I-95.

Malloy, who is grappling with a two-year budget deficit of $2.7 billion, has stopped short of advocating tolls to pay for his plan. But the second-term Democrat has said he is open to the concept, as long as the state reduces its high gas tax.

“The governor has been clear: Let’s decide if we want the best-in-class transportation system today to build a brighter Connecticut tomorrow, and if we do, then we’ll figure out how to pay for it,” said Devon Puglia, a spokesman for Malloy.

Deterrent to shoppers

An engineering company that advises states on tolls recently hired Malloy’s longtime confidante Roy Occhiogrosso to help with communications and lobbying efforts in Connecticut. Occhiogrosso declined to comment.

In Danbury, toll opponents note 10 percent of the sales-tax receipts collected by the state come from the Hat City, thanks in large part to the thousands who flock across the border to the Danbury Fair mall on a daily basis. Opponents said 40 percent of shoppers come from out of state.

“Am I movable on a toll idea? It’s a long shot, but it’s possible,” said state Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury.

McLachlan said he would first have to be convinced the state wouldn’t forfeit federal highway funding by installing tolls. For him to even consider putting tolls in the interior part of Connecticut, McLachlan said the state would have to make Danbury an offer it couldn’t refuse.

“That’s politics 101,” McLachlan said. “There you go.”

Varieties of opinion

Along the western border of the state, there isn’t unanimity, however.

Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi, a Democrat in his 16th year in office, supports tolls, much to the chagrin of his neighbors in Danbury.

“Why he supports it, I don’t know.” McLachlan said. “His residents are calling me saying they’re ticked off.”

Marconi accused toll foes of using scare tactics, questioning his loyalty to Ridgefield and creating a false narrative about him in a municipal election year.

“Politically, the opponents to tolls are going to use it any way that they can,” he said.

Marconi said he is not wedded to tolls right at the border, as long as the state doesn’t lose federal highway aid.

“I can certainly understand Danbury’s point about the mall and sales tax,” Marconi said, adding toll technology has come a long way. “Get rid of that toll-booth fallacy. You never slow up.”

In the town of Southeast, N.Y., which is over the border from Danbury and includes the village of Brewster, Town Supervisor Tony Hay expressed concerns that drivers could overburden shortcuts such as Mill-town and Federal Hill roads that are already high-traffic areas.

“Boy, it would create havoc on our roads,” Hay said. “Knowing those hair-brained schemes that they’re trying to come up with, they’ll probably put (tolls) on those secondary roads, too.”

Along Interstate 95, there is similar angst in the quaint southeastern Connecticut border town of Stonington, which is located across from the popular summertime retreat of Watch Hill, R.I., part of Westerly.

“I shop at Westerly all the time. I get my gas there. I get my vegetables there,” said former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, a Stonington selectman and Republican who is chairman of the conservative Yankee Institute for Public Policy think tank. “It’s just another way that the state of Connecticut is gouging the driving public.” [email protected]; 203-625-4436; gettinviggy