Lawmakers Debating Tolls Once Again

January 23, 2017

Hartford Courant

Installing tolls has traditionally been a tough sell in Connecticut, but advocates are trying again this year as a way to raise billions of dollars to fund highway improvements.

State Rep. Tony Guerrera, the longtime co-chairman of the transportation committee, says the timing is right for a debate as Massachusetts recently abandoned its old toll plazas and moved to all-electronic tolls that eliminate the option to stop and pay in cash.

Both proponents and opponents say the old-fashioned tollbooths are never coming back to Connecticut, and Guerrera says that is not part of the proposal.

Opponents say the tolls are simply another form of taxation, and legislators admit that they avoided voting on the issue in 2016 because it was an election year. But those elections are over, and proponents say a toll is among the best methods of generating money that would be set aside for transportation improvements.

“We have to be serious about fixing our roads and bridges, and if we don’t have the money, we can’t do that,” Guerrera said in an interview.

He also questioned why out-of-state truck drivers and motorists should be able to travel across Connecticut highways without paying directly for the privilege.

“Why are we giving them a free ride when I have to pay when I go to New York, Massachusetts, Delaware, Florida and all over?” Guerrera asked. “If you use it, pay for it. That’s all I’m saying. It’s an equitable way that’s fair to everyone. … I don’t use Metro-North, but I know how important it is for people in that area, and we fund that” as a state payment to subsidize ticket sales.

But tolls still have a long road ahead because top leaders like Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff of Norwalk, House Republican leader Themis Klarides of Derby, and Deputy Speaker Bob Godfrey of Danbury remain highly skeptical. Even the transportation committee itself is split as the new co-chairwoman, Sen. Toni Boucher of Wilton, ranks among the most outspoken legislators against tolls.

“Experts have come to our committee and said 70 percent of the people affected would be Connecticut people, and only 30 percent are out of state,” Boucher said. “It will hurt Connecticut people the most. There are so many things wrong with this. We had an informational hearing in Danbury, and everyone came out against this. Both sides of the aisle.”

The transportation committee is expected to hold a public hearing in the coming weeks, but Boucher said she was unsure how freshman lawmakers might vote on the controversial issue because it is unpopular with many voters.

“The brand new members usually don’t like to take a risk, and there’s some concern about 2018 and the new political landscape,” Boucher said. “I could see a campaign flier in 2018 that ‘this person voted to bring tolls back to Connecticut.’ It’s a pretty political issue.”

In her Fairfield County Senate district that covers towns like New Canaan, Weston and Westport, Boucher estimated that 80 percent of her constituents are against tolls.

“If we have five emails for it, I have 350 against it,” Boucher said.

Like Boucher, Klarides said there is widespread opposition to tolls in areas across the state.

“Anybody, quite frankly, along the shoreline from Greenwich to Stonington who travels along I-95, I think is going to have an issue with it,” Klarides said. “That doesn’t mean every one of them, but generally speaking, there is going to be a concern.”

Klarides predicted an “impassioned debate” at a time when the state is scraping for sources of money and facing a projected deficit of $1.4 billion in the next fiscal year.

No immediate moves are expected as state officials have estimated it could take three to four years for planning, taking public bids, and installing overhead cameras and transponders that would handle an EZ Pass on the state highways. For those without an EZ Pass, the cameras would take a photo of the license plate, and then a bill would be sent to the car owner’s address.

A special panel appointed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy called last year for installing tolls and raising taxes in order to pay for Malloy’s proposed 30-year, $100 billion transportation program. The tolls could raise as much as $18.3 billion by 2040, including 24 percent paid by heavy trucks and 30 percent by out-of-state drivers, the panel said in its report.

The state sales tax would also increase by 0.5 percentage points to 6.85 percent, up from the current level of 6.35 percent. No taxes would be raised until the 2018 fiscal year under the plan.

The panel’s recommendations were advisory, and any tax increases would need to be approved by both the full legislature and Malloy.

The precise amount of the tolls was not determined by Malloy’s advisory panel, but officials said they would average 10 cents per mile. Under a concept known as “congestion pricing,” the prices would drop in the off hours – meaning the toll would be lower at 3 a.m. and higher during rush hour.

Malloy’s spokeswoman, Kelly Donnelly, said that transportation investments have been repeatedly postponed through the years.

“This chronic underfunding has led to the current state of our aging infrastructure that isn’t meeting the modern travel needs of our residents,” Donnelly said. “That’s why Governor Malloy has been focused on creating a transportation lockbox and continues to advocate for putting the measure before Connecticut voters for their consideration.”

Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney of New Haven declined to make any predictions on whether the tolls would be approved, saying that the issue is “as contentious as it was when it was first raised” many years ago.

“People who live in areas where they believe tolls will not likely be placed, tend to favor it, and people who live near where they might be imposed are very much against it,” Looney said.

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter said he is “absolutely” open to exploring options for tolls.

“We are struggling to pay for bridge maintenance and road repair,” he said. “The investments everyone wants to see in high-speed rail and those things – there’s no way you can do that through the current appropriation. Tolls aren’t just a panacea that are going to solve all our problems, but they allow us to do deferred maintenance and also begin to think about whether we can invest in transportation projects.”