In January, a AAA poll found that 47 percent of Connecticut drivers supported interstate highway tolls.
I thought that was remarkable, because state residents, of which I am one, have every right to feel they already pay enough, and, as they say, enough is enough. But all you need is to take even a casual drive to see the evidence of infrastructure in need of repair. Plus, other states do it, so why shouldn’t we? Plus, every day motorists drive though our state without having to pay to do so. So that doesn’t seem fair.
Significantly, the poll also showed strong support for making sure that any money raised by tolls would be spent just on transportation. Which means there’s a trust issue. Which means it’s a tough sell, particularly in an election year.
The situation certainly looks dire, as in a state transportation fund deficit of $38.1 million in 2019, growing to $216.1 million by 2022 — deficits that have serious consequences.
So it’s no wonder the toll discussion is gaining speed, and that is not necessarily a bad situation. An election year gives candidates the opportunity to make a case for or against, and gives voters the chance to take action, as in voting, on how they feel about it.
Republican leaders say the state’s transportation woes can be addressed without tolls. “We are tired … of this state pick-pocketing all of the constituents in our state,” said Len Fasano, the Senate Republican leader, who represents North Haven. “Enough is enough. You don’t have to do it.”
On the other side of the aisle is House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, of Berlin, who was quoted following the January AAA poll thusly: “We let people from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Maine and Quebec ride through the state of Connecticut and pay nothing. It’s absolutely insane to me. So tolls, yes.”
More recently, Aresimowicz said he was willing to put his re-election “on the line over tolls,” even as he recognized that there was not enough support in the General Assembly during an election year.
Tolls have an emotional connection in Connecticut. A fatal truck accident on Interstate 95 in 1983 led to the removal of tollbooths on that highway and not too many years later tolls were removed from all state highways. The idea of bringing them back is a difficult discussion. Republicans have to show how the state’s ailing transportation situation can be fixed without implementing tolls, and Democrats need to convince residents of the need for them.
As Rep. Antonio “Tony” Guerrera, a Rocky Hill Democrat, recently pointed out, “You need some type of blueprint here, and we don’t have that.”
The plan pushed by House Democrats appears careful enough and reasoned. The idea is to task the Department of Transportation with coming up with a detailed plan for tolls that the General Assembly could mull next year. Significantly, the plan must include discounted rates for state citizens. Then legislators would have to pass it a second time before tolls could go into effect.
That said, a look at the numbers makes you squirm: 11.8 cents per mile during peak periods, 9.4 cents off peak. Connecticut residents get discounted rates, but ... yikes.
Do we really want to go there? I want to say no, but then I drive into a pothole. And then I think, OK, show me. Show me how this will work.
Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or email@example.com.