Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, and Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, debate tolls (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — A controversial bill to implement electronic tolling in Connecticut might be considered another tax, but it’s a necessary one if the state wants to maintain its infrastructure, according to lawmakers who voted in favor of the measure.

The legislature’s Transportation Committee voted Friday 19-16 to implement electronic tolls on Connecticut’s highways in order to support improvements to those same roads and bridges. The legislation would also reduce the gas tax by 2.5 cents over the first five years.

Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, who co-chairs the Transportation Committee, said this legislation is already too late to help Connecticut’s special transportation fund, which helps fund improvements to the highways, from becoming insolvent.

The fund, according to transportation officials is expected to become insolvent in 2021 and 2022, and at that point there won’t be any money available to help repairs roads and bridges.

“I am not a tax and spend guy,” Guerrera said. “But I’ll be damned to say something bad is going to be happening on my watch.”

He said he worries that a chunk of concrete is going to fall on a vehicle and kill a family as they travel Connecticut’s highways.

A recent report from the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Connecticut a D+.

They said Connecticut average driver needs to spend $864 in repairs per year on their vehicle and 8 percent of bridges were rated structurally deficient.

Connecticut removed its tolling system in 1983 after a deadly crash. The new electronic tolls would be erected over the highway and allow cars to travel at highway speeds.

Guerrera said tolls is the only responsible way to move forward with paying for highway improvements and he doesn’t care if he doesn’t get re-elected as a result. He said they can blame other governors and other legislatures, but “we’re here now.”

He said they already have permission from the Federal Highway Administration to proceed with tolls.

Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, said every other state around Connecticut has tolls. He said by not having them they are subsidizing every out-of-state driver making their way through Connecticut.

“Do we want to do this? No,” Leone said.

But he concluded that Connecticut has to because there is no other way to fund transportation improvements.

Rep. Fred Wilms, R-Norwalk, suggested they pay for highways and bridges through bonding.

Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, said adding to the state’s debt by borrowing more money to pay for these improvements is not going to help.

Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Saybrook, said taking tolls off the roads following the Mianus Bridge fatality was a mistake. Because it made tolling seem unnatural for Connecticut residents and a much tougher sell. He voted against the measure Friday, but admitted the state needs a reliable source of revenue to fund the improvements.

“The gas tax is no longer that,” Carney said.

Revenue from the gas tax has been decreasing over the years and is expected to decrease further as fuel efficiency improves.

Rep. Russ Morin, D-Wetherfield, joked that if everyone starts driving less fuel efficient SUV’s which seems to be what Republican President Donald Trump is advocating, then Connecticut may see those revenue projections for the gas tax improve. Until then, Morin said the state needs the steady stream of revenue that tolls will provide.

“The damage to the state’s roadways is increasing,” Morin said.

He said tolls are a fair way to pay for infrastructure improvements.

But Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, said it’s just another tax on Connecticut residents and will increase the cost of almost everything for those who can least afford it.

She said attempts to dedicate a funding stream into the special transportation fund have failed.

Earlier in the meeting, the committee approved two pieces of legislation that would require certain funds to go towards transportation. Attempts to amend Connecticut’s constitution to include a lockbox on transportation funds didn’t pass with the supermajority it needed in the House to get onto the ballot in the 2016 election. If lawmakers pass a similar version this year, voters will get to decide in 2018 whether they want to guarantee these funds are used for transportation.