Published March 15. 2013 2:00PM Updated March 16. 2013 12:26AM
The General Assembly's Transportation Committee passed a bill Friday to create tolls for the completion of Route 11. The bill now moves to the House.
"Somewhere, at some time in this state, we have to address tolling, and this (Route 11 toll) is a very sensible way to do it," said state Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester.
Members of the Transportation Committee were divided for the most part along party lines. All of the Republicans opposed the Route 11 bill along with one Democratic senator, Joan Hartley of Waterbury. Another bill — to study electronic tolls, highway congestion, transportation fund spending and the gas tax — passed, even though all of the 13 Republicans on the committee voted against it. The 21 Democrats voted in favor.
State Rep. Pamela Sawyer, R-Bolton, said she voted against the bill because the completion of Route 11 does not yet have approval from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection or from the Environmental Protection Agency.
"There are so many pieces to Route 11 that are not yet in hand," she said. "To put forward a toll piece is premature."
But for Route 11 completion plans to get a "record of decision" or a federal go-ahead, the state needs to be able to show how it would pay for the project, said Richard Armstrong, principal engineer at the state Department of Transportation. "It's not whether we need a toll. We need to know how we're going to pay for it," Armstrong said Friday in a phone interview.
The state DOT is currently working on three studies related to Route 11. One looks at environmental impacts and will take the rest of the year to finish, Armstrong said. Another looks at how to engineer the project, and a third examines how to finance it, including figuring out the optimum toll rate. That study should be complete in a couple of months, he said.
The department is trying to finish the studies, get the "record of decision" and approval from agencies including DEEP, EPA, the Federal Highway Administration, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by the end of this year, Armstrong said.
The state receives federal funds for the studies. But to complete the highway, which is estimated to cost $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion, the DOT will need to apply for 80 percent of the funding from the federal government and 20 percent from the state. Completion would mean extending Route 11 from Salem to Interstate 95 and completing the interchange of Route 11 and Interstates 95 and 395.
The tolls would be used to reimburse the state for the 20 percent it would likely contribute through bonding. The toll would end once the bonds were retired, according to House Bill 6052.
Last month, former Salem First Selectman Peter Sielman, who has followed the project for years, said highway and interchange completion costs could be paid off in about 25 years if a $2 toll for cars and a higher toll for trucks were imposed. But Sawyer, of the Transportation Committee, said she has heard the toll might be as high as $5.
"From my point of view, coming from a military family, that's an excessive amount of money for people in the military," Sawyer said. Southeastern Connecticut is the section of the state with the highest concentration of military personnel, she added.
"There is strong objection by many of us here because it does open the door to this issue and can be a lightning rod to other tolling projects that come up," said state Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton.
But Cassano said, "It should be something we should all agree to if we are going to drive on safe roads in Connecticut. … We can't afford to do it out of the transportation fund and gas tax."
State Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, said he wasn't surprised that the Republicans were against the Route 11 bill.
"I'm used to it, and the Republicans, many of whom are from southwestern Connecticut, have kind of a knee-jerk negative reaction to the word 'toll,' even if it is down in southeastern Connecticut," Jutila said. "Would you believe that we have been discussing it basically for 40 years?"
The first part of Route 11 was built in 1970, and there has always been some reason to block the completion of it, Jutila said, whether it be money issues, politics over which towns the highway would go through, or EPA regulations.
If the project does get approved this year, it would still require engineering planning, property acquisition and the securing of both permits and federal and state funds before construction could begin in 2017 or 2018, Armstrong said.