A legislative panel weighed implementing tolls and increasing the sales tax as a way to fund future investments in the state’s transportation infrastructure Friday at a forum sponsored by the CT Fund for the Environment.
The panel’s moderator, Joe McGee of the Business Council of Fairfield County, said that with federal transportation funding in doubt, the state faces a revenue problem in finding money for its transportation infrastructure.
Lawmakers on the six-person panel were asked to consider some unpopular options to increase revenue. McGee immediately raised putting toll booths back on the state’s highways.
Sen. Toni Boucher, R- Wilton, said tolls needed to be considered only one of many options available. Tolls are deeply unpopular with the public, she said.
“There is a visceral reaction from the public, not just from the voters, but also from businesses and chambers of commerce particularly in cities like Danbury where 40 percent of mall business comes from New York state,” she said.
If the state considers putting tolls on its borders, it must also consider the inequity of who will pay those tolls, she said.
Sen. Gary LeBeau, D- East Hartford, said border tolls are a regional issue, much like the Sunday sales of alcohol. However, he said the legislature should consider what is best for the entire state, not just specific regions. He suggested the state could find a way to reimburse residents of border towns.
LeBeau said adding tolls would bring Connecticut more in line with its neighboring states.
“The greatest inequity right now is that the state of Connecticut is being tromped on by out-of-state drivers who go through this state and pay nothing,” he said.
Tens of thousands of cars pass through the state every day and because the gas tax is so high they don’t buy gas here, he said. Connecticut residents pay for the roads but out of state drivers pay no user fee, he said.
Sen. Andrew Maynard, D- Stonington, said tolls might be one of the less regressive ways to address the issue. Some of the reasons for the public aversion to tolls have been mitigated by technology, he said.
“We have to get out of the mindset that it’s the old fashioned quarter in the basket. I think too often we ask people what they think about bringing back tolls and they’re thinking ‘Okay, every 10 miles we’re going to have to stop and there will be a line,’” he said.
Rep. Kim Fawcett, D- Fairfield, said in order to support tolls, lawmakers in Fairfield County would have have to be able to assure their constituents the money generated would be used to support mass transit in their area.
Tolls encourage commuters to use mass transit but the rail system in Fairfield County is not equipped to handle additional people, she said.
Rep. Tony Guerrera, D- Rocky Hill, said toll revenue could pay for transportation investments and help reduce the state’s high gas tax. He said over a five year period the tax could be reduced by 50 percent.
“Isn’t it a lot cheaper for you to go through an electronic toll than paying that gas tax?” he asked.
After the panel, Guerrera said he was planning on proposing a bill during the legislative session to implement border tolls.
However, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has said he won’t be proposing any highway tolls this legislation session and doesn’t believe the legislature will be able to get him legislation on the issue this year. He did sign legislation last year that allowed for tolls to help pay for the completion of Route 11.
Considering the political barrier to bringing tolls back, McGee asked if increasing the state sales tax by a half a point and dedicating it to transportation was a reasonable alternative.
“I would say yes except that no one would believe for an instant that that’s going to last for more than one session,” Maynard said, implying that the revenue would wind up being used for other things.
Guerrera agreed, saying Connecticut used to have a lock on transportation funding and at that time had one of the best transportation infrastructure systems in the country.
“What happened? When things got bad, they raided that lock box. Therefore, our infrastructure started going down,” he said.
Again, Malloy has said he would not endorse any new taxes so it would be a tough vote for lawmakers, who last year passed the largest tax increase in recent history. He suggested the state could look to public-private partnerships to fund its transportation infrastructure.
The jobs bill passed during the special legislative session in October included a limited provision allowing the governor to approve not more than five such projects. Transportation infrastructure is one of the areas the bill authorizes Malloy to approve the partnerships.
But the projects were capped at five because public-private partnerships were a contentious issue that pitted the governor and Republicans against the legislature’s Democratic majority.
Democrats sided with the state employee unions who said they were concerned that the partnerships, “however well-intentioned, reduce transparency, accountability, and oversight of public services.”
On Friday, McGee said greater use of the partnerships could be a game-changer on an issue the state really can’t afford to ignore.
“If all things stay the same, our $20 billion deficit in transportation will be a $20 billion deficit in transportation. And some bridge will fall, someone will die and Connecticut will go, ‘Oh my God.’ And some governor will want to shoot himself in the head if that happens when he’s governor,” he said.