Published April 27. 2012 4:00AM Updated April 27. 2012 2:02PM
Hartford - The state Senate voted 22 to 14 late Thursday night on a bill that would allow E-ZPass-style tolls on the future second half of Route 11 to help finance the long-stalled project.
"Right now, it's the highway to nowhere," Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, said. "We would like to make it the highway to somewhere."
The 8:30 p.m. vote was along partisan lines, with Democrats favoring the proposal and Republicans opposed. Sens. Stillman, Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, Edith Prague, D-Columbia and Eileen Daily, D-Westbrook, all voted yea. The legislation now moves to House.
The bill gives the state Department of Transportation the option to install electronic tolls along the proposed new portion of Route 11 - an 8½-mile stretch between Salem and a planned three-way interchange in Waterford connecting with interstates 95 and 395.
The project's cost has been estimated at $843 million to $924 million, with about $400 million of that for the new interchange. State officials anticipate that federal funds will provide 80 percent of the costs with the state providing the remainder.
During floor debate, Maynard said tolls are one way to pay off the bonds for the state's portion of costs. The tolls could be removed once the bonds are retired.
Maynard said completing Route 11 would provide safety, economic and quality-of-life benefits for southeastern Connecticut residents. Financing and engineering studies for the project are under way, with revenue estimates from the proposed tolls due by December.
"The governor, this administration, has made the completion of Route 11 a priority," Maynard said.
Southbound motorists are currently forced to get off at the Salem Four Corners exit and later turn onto Route 85, a two-lane road that wasn't built for heavy traffic. There have been 16 fatalities on Route 85 since the Route 11 completion project first stalled, Maynard said.
Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, was the bill's most vocal opponent Thursday. She said the proposal would open the door to the widespread reintroduction of tolls across the state. Connecticut roads have been toll-free since the late 1980s.
Debate on Route 11 was hijacked for nearly three hours after Republicans introduced an amendment that called for removing funding for the controversial New Britain-to-Hartford busway, a 9.4-mile bus rapid transit system with a $569 million price tag. By the end of the evening, some lawmakers were referring to the underlying legislation as the "busway bill."
"We're going to find ourselves with a boondoggle on our hands," Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said.
But busway supporters fended off the challenge in a 19-15 vote against the amendment. They contended that the bus project is worthy and necessary, and noted the 80-20 cost split between federal and state governments.
Sen. Gary LeBeau, D-East Hartford, invoked the visionary success of past large-scale transportation projects such as the Erie Canal and the interstate highway system. The busway is "not a boondoggle, but a bargain," he said.