The debate over whether to reinstall tolls on Connecticut’s highways has begun anew. And while the arguments haven’t changed, the state’s fiscal health has, leading some to believe motorists may soon be paying in-state tolls for the first time since 1989.
On Friday morning, the Transportation Committee heard public testimony on four bills that would reinstitute some form of highway tolls in the state. Two of the bills, submitted by Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, and Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, would place tolls on the borders where vehicles enter and leave the state.
Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, submitted another bill that would authorize the Department of Transportation to impose tolls on new highways and new highway extensions. The funds generated from those tolls would only be used to fund the new roads and would be discontinued as soon as the state’s share of the construction was paid off.
A final measure, proposed by Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, would impose electronic toll fees exclusively on large commercial trucks traveling the state’s highways.
Prague, a long-time supporter of reinstituting tolls, said the money collected at the tolls would help to fund investments in the state’s transportation infrastructure.
“The money for the tolls would go into the transportation fund to help pay for the very things we’re committing ourselves to do,” she said.
But opponents point out that Connecticut already has one of the highest fuel tax rates in the country and it will become the highest if a measure recommended by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is adopted and the diesel fuel tax is increased by 2 cents per gallon.
Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, said that many of the states that do impose highway tolls have also substantially reduced their fuel taxes as a result. She used New Jersey as an example.
“So we have to look at balancing that. The concern on the part of the public — they have a right to be concerned and suspicious because if you institute this it would be another tax and all of those things rise over time,” she said, adding that having driven from Massachusetts to Washington D.C. she has noticed toll prices have risen.
Connecticut Motor Transport Association President Michael J. Riley shook his head when asked about the proposed tolls.
“This is not the week to be talking about raising the cost of living in Connecticut,” he said, referring Malloy’s budget proposal released Wednesday, which includes $1.5 billion in tax increases.
Riley also compared Connecticut’s fuel taxes to other states like New Jersey. In Connecticut, heavy vehicles pay 41.6 cents on the gallon for gasoline and 39.6 per gallon of diesel, he said. Whereas in New Jersey they pay only 14.5 cents for a gallon of gas and 15.5 cents for diesel, he said.
“There’s no reality here. Real people see this for what it is and it’s just another way to take money out of our pockets,” he said.
Prague said she isn’t necessarily opposed to reducing the gas tax, but said speculating on uses for the funds is pointless until they know they will be implementing the tolls.
“We have to make the decision first that we’re going to have an income from tolls. There’s no point in wasting time to make decisions that are never going to be implemented,” she said.
Opponents also say that border tolls put an unfair burden on residents who live in towns near the borders. Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, said that in an effort to avoid tolls, people will actually get off highways and cross the border on smaller roads, leading to increased congestion in those towns. Border town residents are also more likely to be crossing the borders themselves and would end up paying the tolls more often, he said.
But McLachlan said it also was important to look at the impact installing tolls would have on the federal money the state receives for maintaining its highways.
“How much money will we lose in federal highway tax grants in the process? Because when you put tolls on your roads the federal government takes away a good portion of your federal highway tax money,” he said.
Those federal dollars were one of the reasons the state decided to do away with its tolls in the first place, according to a 2009 legislative research report.
In their last year of operation, the tolls brought in $72.3 million, it said. That revenue was offset by operating costs of the toll plazas, about $13.4 million, and fringe benefits that the employees working the tolls received. The report estimated the value of the fringe benefits at between $6 million and $7 million, putting the total estimated revenue of the tolls at around $52 million.
In 1983, when the state began shutting down its toll plazas, it received an additional funding increase of $11-12 million annually from the federal government under its 4R program, the report said. And because the tolls have been gone, the state also has been able to use federal money over the years to pay for large portions of improvement projects to highways and bridges, it said.
But MetroHartford Alliance President R. Nelson “Oz” Griebel said that the state should not count on federal funds to maintain its transportation system.
“Our support of these proposals recognizes the reality that federal funding will not be the primary source of our future and that we must take more control and assume responsibility for managing a key component of our future prosperity,” he said for the alliance in a prepared statement.
The business group supports both the increased fuel taxes and an electronic toll system as long as the legislature includes a clearly defined constitutional safeguard to ensure that all of the funds generated go toward maintaining and enhancing the transportation system, he said.
The state has over $3 billion in transportation infrastructure needs, but the Office of Fiscal Analysis has predicted the Special Transportation Fund will have a $71.4 million operating deficit in fiscal year 2012, he said.
While the fund gets revenue from the state’s gas taxes, Griebel said that revenue is likely to drop.
“The gasoline tax is a buy-in tax, which means the less gasoline that’s being bought, based on improving cars’ fuel efficiency, hybrids, and what-not, the buy-in will go down. So even increasing the gasoline tax is not necessarily an offset of a decrease in buy-in,” he explained.