HARTFORD, CT — Senate Republicans want to reframe the debate over highway tolls because they feel the facts and narrative have gotten away from lawmakers in favor of the idea.
With less than a month left in the legislative session and a special transportation fund that will be empty by 2022, Democrats in the House have been quietly waging a campaign to pass legislation that would re-establish tolls in the state.
On Facebook and through email newsletters, members of the House Democratic caucus have been asking their constituents to weigh in on the idea of tolls by sharing how much money other states collect.
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, who posted a map of New England with a graphic showing the amount of toll revenue collected by other states, said Wednesday that he believes tolls are “inevitable” in the state of Connecticut.
He said he disagrees that the idea of erecting tolls in Connecticut is unpopular.
“They see it as a fairness issue,” Aresimowicz said.
He said the amount of money raised by surrounding states through tolls is astounding and Connecticut has a special transportation fund that’s going to be broke in 2022.
Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said it’s not about whether it’s popular or not.
“You don’t get to that think box until you figure out whether it works or not,” Fasano said.
He said the others states in New England have border tolls because they did not make the same deal with the federal government that Connecticut did in 1983 after the Mianus bridge fatality.
“We made a deal with them that we would not put up border tolls,” Fasano said.
He said Connecticut could do congestion pricing tolls where drivers would pay a higher rate during higher traffic periods, but the question is “what would that model look like?”
The Connecticut Department of Transportation concluded a study in September 2016 that laid out a variety of options for congestion pricing and highway widening.
According to the Connecticut Congestion Relief Study, tolling I-95 could bring in about $286 million in gross toll revenue, and it would cost about $10 million in operating and maintenance. If Connecticut outsourced the operations and maintenance to a vendor, the revenue the state could see would go down by about $23 million. That option, laid out in the study, would require widening of I-95 in the Bridgeport-Stamford area.
There’s also an alternative option to toll Route 15, which may be sought as an alternate route for vehicles wishing to avoid a potential toll, according to the study. Tolling both I-95 and Route 15 were the best options for revenue and a reduction in congestion, according to the study.
There was also a study of the I-84 corridor, which found net tolling revenue could be anywhere between $43 million to $173 million depending on how far the state could toll. Tolling from New York to Hartford would bring in the most toll revenue and there would be 11 locations for the tolls to collect along the route.
The fiscal note for the bill says the amount of revenue the state could realize would depend on how the toll system is structured.
“The revenue impact of imposing tolls is indeterminate as it will primarily depend on: (1) the fee structure set by DOT; (2) which interstate highways and projects are tolled; (3) the associated administrative and capital costs, and; (4) the federal laws governing the circumstances under which the tolls are allowed,” the Office of Fiscal Analysis writes in its fiscal note.
“I think people understand the reality of it,” House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said. “Everyone on the eastern seaboard has tolls except Connecticut.”
Aresimowicz said more than 50 percent of Connecticut’s bridges and roads are in poor or failing condition.
If the General Assembly passes a bill allowing for tolls to go back up, then the Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker would come back next session with a plan for how they will go about erecting toll gantries in the state, Aresimowicz said.
However, Fasano said that’s not what the bill that was passed out of committee says.
In March, the legislature’s Transportation Committee voted 19-16 to 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.
Tolls would not be allowed to be on the borders because it would jeopardize the federal highway funding the state has received over the years.
Aresimowicz said he’s been told by third-party vendors that they could come in and set them up quickly with little or no cost to the state of Connecticut.
Ritter said the Connecticut Realtors held a rally in Bushnell Park Tuesday asking lawmakers for a chance to “sell Connecticut.”
“We have to look at our infrastructure,” Ritter said. “That’s how you’re going to sell Connecticut.”
“People want to be able to take a train from Fairfield County to New York City. People want to be able to take trains from New Haven and Hartford to Boston. They don’t want traffic. They don’t want the I-84 viaduct being backed up every day for 9 miles. They want us to invest in that. That’s why I think it’s a bipartisan issue and it’s not that unpopular.”
The Department of Transportation has estimated that it would take three or four years to re-establish tolls on Connecticut’s highways.