I was going through some old posts the other day and found one about the legislature considering putting up tolls on the highways to help pay for transportation. It was from 2007. Maybe — just maybe — they’re finally getting ready to do it this year.
Last week the Transportation Committee narrowly passed a bill that would allow tolls to be rebuilt on Connecticut’s highways. Tolls were removed from I-95 in 1983, following a horrific accident where a tractor trailer
There are other reasons, too. Tolls, if used in the right way, can help ease traffic gridlock. Charging congestion tolls at peak times, if used in conjunction with reliable public transportation, has been shown to actually reduce traffic.
The arguments against tolls all seem to boil down to “I don’t want to pay them.” For example, Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, dismissed tolls as just another tax on commuters.
Well, yeah. That’s the idea. Look, revenue from the gas tax has been declining for years as fuel efficiency rises. The state has a lot of roads and bridges that are falling apart. So, sure, it’s a tax on drivers, because the infrastructure they use desperately needs to be maintained.
The only good point Boucher made was that the state needs to create a special transportation “lockbox,” an idea that was approved last year but has apparently fizzled out now.
The next step for this bill is either a floor vote or a quiet, ignominious death at the hands of the Democratic leadership. A floor vote, if it happens, will be unbelievably contentious.
Before that happens, though, it’s a good idea to figure out what will happen when Connecticut actually has tolls, how we would phase them in, and what it will look like for drivers.
Massachusetts is a surprisingly sterling example for all of this. The Mass Pike (I-90) was, until quite recently, an agonizing march through a thicket of toll booths. No longer. Massachusetts changed to all-electronic tolling last October, and the results have been surprisingly excellent. There’s no need to pay toll collectors, no clunky toll plaza infrastructure, and no traffic snarls at the booths themselves. The tolls work through transponders attached to the inside of the windshield of your car. You may already have an EZPass or FastPass transponder from another state — there are compacts in place ensuring they work throughout much of the country.
Gantries overhead at points along the Mass Pike charge a toll to anyone going underneath them. They aren’t at every exit — meaning local traffic in less populated areas, like Western Massachusetts, can often travel an exit or two for free. The gantries can charge whatever controllers want to set them to charge, meaning that congestion pricing would be easy to implement.
The roll-out of all-electronic tolling took well over a year, and was a remarkable success. It was advertised everywhere, and it was dead simple to actually get a transponder through an online sign-up form. Payment is easy, a transponder has to be linked to a credit card that refills the account automatically when it gets low.
This system would work very well on the crowded Fairfield County stretch of I-95, for example. There’s talk of placing tolls on the borders of the state, as well — this could certainly be done. It also makes sense to find other traffic choke points like Waterbury, New Haven, and Hartford, and charge people to go through them. This could raise billions of dollars for transportation over the next few decades.
So, yes, tolls are an idea whose time has more than come. The state has to join the rest of the Northeast Corridor and charge people to use the highways. But if and when that happens, the money should go only to transportation — something the legislature should ensure with a constitutional amendment. Only then can we guarantee safer roads and bridges, and better transportation for everyone.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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—Proponents Argue That Tolling Is The Only Way Left To Fund Crumbling Highways
—Sandwiched Between Two States Transitioning To Electronic Tolls