Courtesy of CT-N
Rep. Antonio Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill (Courtesy of CT-N)

If lawmakers and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy hadn’t decided to use a half percent of the sales tax to help support the Special Transportation Fund, things would be much worse. But even with that sales tax revenue, the Special Transportation Fund is on pace to become insolvent between 2021 and 2022, according to state transportation officials.

“This is the most optimistic picture we can paint,” said Garrett Eucalitto, undersecretary for Transportation, Conservation and Development at the state Office of Policy and Management. “We expect it will be much worse than this.”

The insolvency is part of the reason behind four bills that would allow for an electronic tolling system to be installed on Connecticut’s highways. The public hearing on those bills will be held today.

Connecticut’s toll booths were removed in 1983 after a deadly crash. But debate about whether to resurrect them as electronic gantries has been a topic for discussion in recent years as vehicles become more fuel efficient or completely electric. The state’s transportation infrastructure is largely funded with money from the motor fuels tax.

At a forum last week, the legislature’s Transportation Committee sought the help of experts to see if they could come up with a solution to the funding problem, including installing tolls.

Proponents of tolls tried to dispel rumors that Connecticut would lose federal highway dollars, while opponents stood their ground describing it as another tax.

“We are in a crisis. I do believe that,” Transportation Committee Co-Chairman Rep. Antonio Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, said Friday.

He said the Special Transportation Fund is at a critical juncture.

“Are you saying that in four years, basically, we’re going to be looking at an empty bucket?” Guerrera asked Eucalitto.

“Yes, Mr. Chairman,” Eucalitto said.

He said without the $340 million from the sales tax revenue the Special Transportation Fund would be insolvent in about a year.

The Special Transportation Fund is what pays for highway and bridge improvements. Malloy tried to start a conversation about bolstering the fund a few years ago, but the General Assembly failed to get his “lockbox” legislation on the ballot in 2016. Without such a guarantee, Malloy’s efforts to set aside money for big projects such as the I-84 viaduct in Hartford and the Route 8 Mixmaster in Waterbury have been largely shelved.

It’s possible lawmakers could again pass the so-called “lockbox” legislation this year with a simple majority and get it on the ballot in 2018. Connecticut residents would then get to determine whether to amend the state constitution and dedicate that money to the Special Transportation Fund.

State transportation officials said even though motor fuel tax collection is up at the moment it’s largely due to changes in diesel fuel taxes. The amount Connecticut is collecting from its two gas taxes is less than it was back in 2007.

“Right now the taxpayers, the residents feel they are taxed too much,” Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, said.

Boucher said she’s more willing to consider sweeping more sales tax revenue into the Special Transportation Fund in order to help it remain solvent than she is to consider tolls. However, she also wants the cost of the transportation improvements to be addressed, instead of focusing on revenue to try and keep up.

But Guerrera said there are many out-of-state drivers who aren’t paying their fair share. He said electronic tolls are the “fairest way” to make sure those out-of-state drivers are paying their fair share.

Eucalitto said roughly 20 to 30 percent of the revenue the state would receive from electronic tolls would be from out-of-state drivers. He said Connecticut could offer its residents a discount to help them off-set some of the cost without losing federal highway funds.

Massachusetts Department of Transportation officials told Connecticut lawmakers that about 100,000 Connecticut residents have Massachusetts transponders and receive a discount as a result of having that transponder when they pass through the newly erected electronic gantries.

As long as the tolls were not put on the border, Connecticut would be able to continue to receive the boost in federal highway funds it received when it removed the toll booth, Eucalitto said.

He said Connecticut is the only state on the Atlantic seaboard without some type of electronic tolling.

“We’re faced with a lot of bad options,” Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, said.