Tolls Dominate Forum On Transportation Issues [Hartford Courant]

April 30, 2015

Article as it appeared in the Hartford Courant

STRATFORD — In what might be a template for any future debate about highway tolls in Connecticut, a Republican legislator, the state’s transportation chief and the top lobbyist for the trucking industry sounded off on the topic this week.

A panel talk hosted by The Connecticut Mirror on Tuesday evening addressed a series of transportation topics, but levying highway tolls was — not surprisingly — the most controversial.

Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, put forward the Republican line: Tolls are dangerous and impractical, and Connecticut doesn’t need new revenue to pay for transportation improvements. By diverting money earmarked for other capital projects, the state can rebuild highways, bridges and rail systems without seeking new funds, she said.

“Job growth is flat but the cost of state government has skyrocketed,” Boucher said. “We can reprioritize current bonding — we can accomplish a lot in our current bonding capacity.”

Boucher said survivors of the Stratford toll plaza wreck from the 1980s gave emotional testimony at the Capitol this year against bringing back toll plazas. She said E-Z Pass systems anywhere she’s driven have included cash-only lanes, so she doesn’t buy into the argument that all-electronic tolling would cause no traffic slowdowns or backups.

“That’s not the case at all,” replied Transportation Commission James Redeker, who said any tolling system Connecticut considers would have to be all-electronic. Drivers would go through such systems at regular highway speed, he said.

Motorists who get transponders would be charged automatically, and cameras would record the license plate numbers of vehicles without transponders so the state could bill the owners afterward, Redeker said.

Redeker said he isn’t endorsing tolls, but doesn’t want the debate sidetracked by the Stratford wreck of more than 30 years ago because tolling technology has changed completely since then.

“Tolling systems being installed today [in other states] don’t impede traffic. To bring back fear from Stratford really isn’t the case,” he said.

Michael Riley, the chief lobbyist for the trucking industry in Connecticut, said professional drivers accept that Connecticut has to raise more money to maintain and improve its outdated infrastructure. But he said any new measure that just raises money without safeguarding it wouldn’t get support, and that truck drivers would like to see a more efficient transportation system.

“They know we have to pay more, and we’re willing to. But we have to know we’ll get something for it,” Riley told an audience of several dozen listeners. “We want to know how this system will deal with congestion. If there’s more throughput, more efficiency, we’ll pay. We’d like to have the option to have congestion pricing.”

The General Assembly’s transportation committee this session agreed that money in the special transportation fund — as well as future revenues — needs to be protected from future raids by governors or legislators desperate to balance the state’s overall budget. The committee voted along party lines to consider highway tolls. It’s unknown whether that bill will come to a vote in the legislature before the session ends.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget director has said the special transportation fund will go bankrupt within the next three years even without raids. The state has begun putting general money into the fund to shore it up, but declining revenue from the gas tax — combined with rising costs for an ever-increasing list of infrastructure upgrades — means the old way of paying for highway maintenance simply won’t work any more, Malloy’s staff has said.

“In Connecticut, the infrastructure is old and getting old, and the same amount of money buys less [each year],” Redeker said.

Riley said part of the blame lies with the federal government, which he said has abdicated its responsibility to pay for maintaining the interstate highway system initiated in the Eisenhower Administration. The Republican-led Congress has balked at beefing up highway aid to the states, and only two federal lawmakers have publicly supported raising the national gas tax.

The trucking industry has suggested raising the federal tax rate for gas and diesel fuel by 15 cents a gallon over the next several years.

“Only Sen. [Chris] Murphy and one other have had the guts to say this is what needs to be done,” Riley said. “Seeing what we’ve seen out of Congress lately, that’s no surprise.”

Boucher repeated that the state can meet its transportation needs for the next 30 years by taking money from less urgent needs, and warned that tolls or higher taxes would drive businesses away.