He may not have won his party’s nomination for governor back in 2010, but Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi isn’t giving up on the idea of bringing back highway tolls.
At the legislature’s Transportation Committee hearing Monday, Marconi told legislators that not much has changed since he testified about the issue two years ago. He said there still seems to be a misunderstanding about tolls in the state.
“We’re not talking about bringing back the old toll booth and creating those traffic jams,” Marconi said. “We’re far from that. Technology has come so far that we only look at a gantry over the highway that has absolutely no impact on the speed of traffic.”
Connecticut got rid of its tolls in 1985 when a tractor-trailer driven by Charles L. Kluttz killed seven people in a crash at the Stratford toll plaza. Kluttz had fallen asleep behind the wheel.
Since then the state has depended upon federal aid to help fund improvements to its highways and bridges, but that funding has remained relatively flat over the past few years. In order to supplement those funds, the state uses its special transportation fund, which is funded mostly by the motor fuels tax.
However, over the years the General Assembly also has taken money from the special transportation fund to balance the general budget. In recent years the legislature has worked to build up fund, but it’s not enough to keep up with the state’s highway repair and transit infrastructure needs.
Rep. Antonio Guerrera, co-chairman of the Transportation Committee, asked Marconi if he would be okay with keeping all the toll revenue in a “lockbox,” so it couldn’t be used for anything but transportation infrastructure.
Marconi said he’s in favor of a lockbox or even a constitutional amendment that would restrict the use of the funds.
Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, wanted to know if Marconi would support reducing the state’s two gas taxes if the state agreed to reintroduce tolls.
“We could certainly bring the gas tax down somewhat, but don’t forget we need revenues,” Marconi said. “To implement one form of revenue and negate another are we not in fact eliminating any positives associated with that?”
Rep. Steven Mikutel, who lives in Griswold near the Rhode Island border, asked Marconi if he thought there should be some sort of compensation for residents who live in border towns and will be asked to pay the toll more frequently than others in the central portion of the state.
Marconi said he sees no problem with the state creating some sort of tax credit or a consideration for residents who are stuck traveling back and forth on the impacted roadways. However, he said he doesn’t believe the consideration should completely negate the amount of money the state needs to raise because those people are using the road.
“It’s getting harder to make an intellectual case against having tolls,” Mikutel said. “I can make the argument still, but people who use the roads should pay for the roads. It’s hard to be against that.”
A 2011 report on Toll Road News estimated there are eight key locations in the state where tolls could be placed to bring in additional revenue, and not all of them are on the borders. A 2009 Connecticut Transportation Strategy Board report estimated billions of dollars in revenue would be realized from establishing highway tolls. The details of a toll plan — how many tolls, where to use them, how much to charge, whether to use congestion pricing — would obviously determine the amount of revenue raised.
“I think the people would be much more supportive of tolls, Mr. Chairman, if they knew that money was going toward transportation infrastructure,” Mikutel said.
Boucher told Marconi that the reintroduction of tolls is extremely unpopular with the public. She said one reason for that is that the public believes toll money will be taken from transportation and used to balance the general budget.
Further, Marconi said that in order to maintain the current level of highway funding the state receives from the federal government, it would need to establish a “lockbox” for the toll money or otherwise guarantee that it would be used on the roads.
But that may not be as simple as it sounds. An Office of Legislative Research report from 2009 offers a convoluted list of exceptions and eventually says the state must receive a federal waiver to add tolls and still receive federal highway funds.
Guerrera said he thought everyone at the hearing could agree to establishing some sort of “lockbox” for toll revenue.
“The reality is we can’t rely on the gas tax anymore,” Guerrera said. “When every car is going to start getting 50 to 55 miles per gallon, the gas tax will have to go up to $2 a gallon to maintain the infrastructure we have.”
There are at least five bills this year, including one written by Rep. Patricia Dillon of New Haven, calling for the establishment of electronic tolls either on the state’s highways or borders. One written by Sen. Gary LeBeau, D-East Hartford, calls for decreasing the gas tax if they’re established.