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Hartford - Legislation to authorize E-ZPass-style tolls to help pay for the future extension of Route 11 received a public hearing Monday before state lawmakers, but its prospects remain uncertain.
The bill would allow the state Department of Transportation to place tolls along the new part of the highway, a proposed 8½-mile stretch between Salem and a planned three-way interchange in Waterford that would connect with Interstates 95 and 395.
The tolls are required to be "electronic" in nature and must go away once the project's bonds are paid off.
Similar legislation passed the House of Representatives by a 76-60 vote last year, but later stalled in the Senate.
"I think there was some strong opposition," state Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, the bill's chief backer, recalled Monday. "Mainly on the Republican side - the Fairfield County legislators who tend to oppose anything with the word 'toll' in it."
To improve the bill's chances this year, Jutila tightened up its language in hopes of assuaging concerns that the legislation might clear the way for the widespread reintroduction of tolls across the state.
Connecticut has been free of roadway tolls since the late 1980s. The tipping point was a 1983 tractor-trailer crash at a Stratford toll booth that left seven people dead.
Jutila is proposing tolls as an additional stream of money to help finance the long-delayed and longer-discussed Route 11 extension.
First envisioned half a century ago, the project is now estimated to cost almost $1 billion, with $400 million for the new interchange at Interstates 95 and 395.
Connecticut officials have anticipated an 80/20 cost split between the federal government and the state if construction were ever to begin. Tolls could be part of the funding stream for the state's 20 percent share, in addition to financing via the state transportation fund.
Route 11 is effectively on hold while DOT officials complete the latest round of required engineering and cost analyses. DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick estimated Monday that there is another 18 to 24 months to go before all the studies are done.
But Jutila's legislative tweaks may not be enough to secure passage of the tolls bill this year.
State Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, co-chairman of the legislature's Transportation Committee, said that he is hearing reluctance among some committee members worried that the tolling concept, if approved for Route 11, could bring unwelcome hope to controversial road projects in other parts of the state that some don't want built.
"I could pave the way, no pun intended, for the completion of Route 7," Maynard said.
A handful of Route 11 opponents spoke during Monday's public hearing before the transportation panel. Molly McKay, a chairwoman of the Sierra Club's Connecticut chapter, told legislators that extending Route 11 and building a "triple-decker" interchange would be a waste of money that could be better spent on public transportation.
"I consider this as fiscal insanity," McKay said. "Right now Route 11 has light traffic, rarely would you even call it moderate. One day I went up and I saw two cars before I reached Route 2."
McKay opposes the highway for environmental reasons, too. "We need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and to do that we need to reduce vehicle miles traveled," she said.
Marc LaFrance of Montville argued that there is no need to extend Route 11, as "Connecticut is pretty built-out in terms of roads." He also criticized a lack of details in the tolls bill, including how much drivers would have to pay.
"I speak with a lot of my neighbors in the area and they're opposed to the project," LaFrance said.
Jutila emphasized that the bill would only authorize the option of tolls - it wouldn't require them - and the DOT financing study is to determine an optimum toll price.
Peter Sielman, former first selectman of Salem, spoke in favor of the bill and said there is a big safety need for completing the highway. He said the alternative idea to widen Route 85 that is popular with some Route 11 opponents has been studied before and has been found to be impractical.
Because Route 11 now ends in Salem, motorists en route to New London must exit onto Route 82 and then onto Route 85, a two-lane undivided road lined with many private driveways.
"Route 85 is dangerous. If you were to widen the road, it would become more dangerous," Sielman said. "Completing Route 11 would be far less dangerous with far fewer accidents."
State Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, said she believes a completed Route 11 would alleviate the heavy traffic volume on Route 85. It also would provide a speedier evacuation route in case of a disaster at the Millstone Nuclear Power Station in Waterford, she argued.
Past studies suggest that the project would actually reduce vehicle emissions by cutting down on stop-and-go traffic.