FILE PHOTO -- Motorists travel on the Wilbur Cross Pkwy and I- 91 in Meriden, Monday, March 14, 2016. Tolls have been proposed for the area to fund road projects over the next 30 years.| Dave Zajac / Record-Journal
March 21, 2017 11:06AM
By Mike Savino
HARTFORD — The legislature’s Transportation Committee on Friday approved reinstalling tolls to bolster the state’s Special Transportation Fund.
The 19 to 16 vote fell along party lines after a contentious debate.
“Everything that everybody wanted on this legislation is there now,” said Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, committee co-chair.
The bill doesn’t spell out a timeline, but authorizes the state Department of Transportation to begin the process of installing electronic tolls along highways. It also calls for a 2.5 cent drop in the gas tax to be phased in over the first five years tolls are operational.
The use of electronic tolls would eliminate the need for toll booths, with devices spanning across the highway reading transponders in vehicles. The devices would also photograph license plates on cars without transponders, and those motorists would be billed for tolls. The state removed tolls after a deadly crash at a collection booth in 1983.
Democrats appear to be unifying around tolls, but the bill has failed to gain any support from Republicans.
Republicans have said the state can fund transportation improvements by re-prioritizing bonding and limiting funding in some areas, such as school construction. Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, a committee co-chairwoman, questioned why Democrats “have not address the proposals that (Republicans) have put out time and again” on how to fund transportation upgrades.
Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, questioned the need for tolls, saying he doesn’t think the Special Transportation Fund is in as much trouble a Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration has predicted.
Malloy and his budget office have warned that transportation revenues aren’t enough to keep up with the state’s needs, projecting during a February forum that the account will be insolvent by 2022.
“Looking down the road, we need to provide a stable revenue source for the Special Transportation Fund,” said Rep. Emil “Buddy” Altobello, D-Meriden.
Suzio, though, said the state has actually seen an increase in gasoline sales and pointed out that Malloy’s budget shows a bump in transportation revenues over the next two years.
Some Republicans said they understand the need to secure more revenue, but the legislature cannot be trusted to spend toll income solely on transportation.
Several other Democrats on the committee agreed that the state needs an influx of transportation revenue, and noted Connecticut is the only state on the East Coast without tolls. Some also said other fee structures, like the gas tax, are unfair to residents because out-of-state travelers can pass through without incurring the costs.
“We are subsidizing everybody coming in to our state and paying those costs,” said Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, a committee co-chairman.
The committee also approved a proposed constitutional amendment to protect the transportation fund from sweeps, but Boucher raised concerns that it is “Swiss cheese-legislation.”
The complaints drew a strong response from Guerrera, who has been one of the legislature’s most vocal supporters of tolls for years.
He said he has worked to gain assurances that the state won’t lose federal funding by re-implementing tolls, to clarify that tolls cannot be placed only on borders, and to include language mandating a drop in the gas tax.
Guerrera also pointed to the poor ratings that Connecticut’s infrastructure regularly gets, and said he’d “ be damned if something bad is going to happen on my watch.”
“I don’t give a you-know-what, and I mean that sincerely — I don’t care, because if I can sleep at night, and five years down the road I know what I did was right, that is all I care about,” he said.