HARTFORD, CT — (Updated 8 p.m.) The House was poised to debate one of the most controversial issues in the state — tolls. But the House adjourned Wednesday before taking up the legislation after proponents got cold feet about their vote count.
Rep. Antonio Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, who has been pushing the issue for the past six years, said all the revenue raised from the electronic tolls on Interstate 95, 91, and 84, and Routes 8, 15, 9 and maybe 2, would be used to improve the crumbling roads and bridges.
The federal government, according to Guerrera, would require Connecticut to use all the money raised from tolls on infrastructure improvements. So even without a lock box, Guerrera said it acts as a guarantee the money will be used on transportation improvements.
Later Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said that any discussion of tolls “should wait until there’s a lock box.”
He said he has not endorsed the concept of tolls in the past and it’s even harder for him to endorse them in the present because there is no lock box.
The legislation the House is expected to debate is not a study. It would allow the Department of Transportation to implement electronic tolling without any further legislative authorization.
“They will go right to the Federal Highway Administration,” Guerrera said.
The bill wouldn’t generate any revenue for the budget over the next two years, according to the fiscal note, but legislative leaders see it as an inevitable and the fairest way to repair Connecticut’s crumbling highways and bridges.
The Office of Fiscal Analysis said the revenue generated from electronic tolls is “indeterminate.”
The Department of Transportation has estimated that it would take three or four years to re-establish tolls on Connecticut’s highways, but Guerrera and House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, more optimistic about the time line.
They said it could happen within 18 months or 2 years.
“We’ve all been on the Mass Pike and we’ve seen now how it’s tolled electronic,” Guerrera said.
He said the electronic gantries can be put up in a relatively short period of time and nothing needs to be knocked down.
Connecticut removed its tolling system in 1983 after a deadly crash. The new electronic tolls would be erected over the highway and would allow cars to travel at highway speeds.
Guerrera said tolls are 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 of implementing them. He said they can blame other governors and other legislatures, but “we’re here now” and he said “we are in a serious predicament.”
He said if Connecticut’s doesn’t do this, then everyone has to look at alternative ways to fund the infrastructure. He said if they do that by borrowing then it’s on the back of Connecticut residents.
“This is the fairest way of doing this,” Guerrera said.
He estimated that 30 to 40 percent of the traffic on Connecticut roads is out-of-state drivers. He said tolls would generate revenue from those drivers and Connecticut drivers would be given a discount.
He said the gas tax is on its way out because fuel efficiency has increased and electric vehicles have increased in popularity, driving down the revenue generated from the gas tax and the gross receipts tax.
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 revenue with 11 locations for the tolls to collect along the route.
The tolls couldn’t be exclusively on the borders, according to lawmakers. They would need to be about 8 to 12 miles inside the state and there would have to be multiple tolls erected along the busiest highways.
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.
The legislation has been on the House calendar since April.
Aresimowicz said he’s not going to limit debate on the bill, but he’s going to give Republicans a chance to talk about it privately before calling it.
Aresimowicz declined to say whether he had Republican votes for the bill because he didn’t want to “jinx it.” He said he will allow it to come to a vote.
The vote count was already razor thin and two members of the Democratic caucus were absent Wednesday. There are 79 Democrats in the House and not all of them support electronic tolls. The bill needs 76 votes to pass and Democrats only had 77 members present.
By 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, the House decided not to debate the bill.