HARTFORD, CT — In June, the House failed to muster enough support to pass legislation to set up electronic highway tolling, but legislative support may not matter if Gov. Dannel P. Malloy gets his way.
Within the compromise budget proposal Malloy put forward last week there’s language to create a Transportation Finance Authority to possibly authorize electronic tolling.
“We are proposing the creation of a quasi-public that will be focused on analyzing the revenues dedicated to the Special Transportation Fund, projecting out-year revenues and expenditures, and ensuring the solvency and adequacy of the Special Transportation Fund,” Meg Green, a spokeswoman for Malloy, said.
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. Since the removal of the tolls in 1983, the state’s transportation infrastructure has been funded largely with money from the motor fuels tax.
Rep. Antonio Guerrera, who co-chairs the legislature’s Transportation Committee, has been pushing for electronic tolls for years.
He said taking it out of the hands of the legislative body isn’t necessarily a bad thing and it’s certainly not unprecedented. He said a quasi-public agency would operate like the Port Authority in New York.
But he also said it doesn’t mean lawmakers won’t play a role.
“We can have public hearings on all of this and make suggestions, but the bottom line will come down to whether they have authority to implement this,” Guerrera said Friday.
Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, who has been an opponent of tolls for years, said it’s a mistake to create a quasi-public agency to oversee the installation of electronic tolls.
“It’s concerning that they’re trying to circumvent the legislative process,” Boucher said.
Not only that, but Boucher said electronic tolls will be a “direct pay cut every week to workers,” in the mostly middle- to lower-income tax brackets. She said Connecticut residents are the ones who will be paying these tolls.
She estimated about 30 percent of the state’s traffic comes from out-of-state residents. Guerrera said it’s closer to 40 percent.
Regardless, of who will be paying the tolls, whether they are Connecticut residents or out-of-state residents, Guerrera said Connecticut can’t ignore the fact that the special transportation fund is going broke.
He said even an increase in the gas tax wouldn’t solve the problem because new vehicles are getting better miles per gallon or they’re electric.
“We are in dire need for funds for the special transportation fund. We need revenue,” Guerrera said. “Unless you can tell me a better fairer way of getting revenue, this is the way to do it.”
Boucher wondered what will happen if Connecticut decides to implement congestion pricing to charge drivers who travel at peak commuting hours more.
“It was proposed on the floor and it didn’t have the votes,” Boucher said. “It’s not the right direction to go.”
Guerrera said the bill he introduced in June on the floor of the House had watered down previous legislation by asking the Department of Transportation to study the issue and come back to the legislature with a proposal about where they would construct the electronic gantries.
House Majority Leader Matt Ritter pointed out during the June debate that every year Guerrera is able to convince more lawmakers that implementing tolls is the responsible thing to do.
“I think tolls are inevitable in the state of Connecticut,” Ritter said. “In five years, or eight years or one year, you will be right and people of Connecticut will support you for what you did.”
Guerrera 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 in February 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 Commonwealth’s 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 booths, said Garrett Eucalitto, undersecretary for Transportation, Conservation and Development at the state Office of Policy and Management.
Eucalitto has said Connecticut is the only state on the Atlantic seaboard without some type of electronic tolling.
A 2013 Quinnipiac University poll found that 58 percent of Connecticut residents oppose tolls. However, that same poll found 57 percent of voters support tolls if the money raised is used to repair the state’s roads and bridges.
There are nearly 6,000 miles of tolled highways in the U.S. that collect more than $13 billion annually.