Published March 20. 2013 4:00AM
Pursuing a strategy to use tolling as a funding source may well be the last, best chance to finally complete Route 11, extending it from the current terminus in Salem to an interchange connecting with Interstates 95 and 395.
The General Assembly's Transportation Committee last week approved a bill that would allow for the installation of tolls as a means to pay for construction. Its final approval by the legislature is far from certain, however, in large part because it will continue to be tied to the larger debate about the use of tolls in Connecticut.
This newspaper has supported the concept of reintroducing tolls in Connecticut, using the new E-Z Pass technology, as a funding source to maintain and improve the state's transportation systems. But lawmakers should treat the Route 11 toll proposal as a separate issue, a means to pay for an environmentally sensitive and so expensive highway project during difficult fiscal times.
But the committee vote, with all Republicans voting no, shows why it will be difficult to make that separation from the larger toll debate. One of the few political strongholds for state Republicans is southwest Connecticut, where opposition to tolling is particularly strong. That's because tapping commuters going to and from New York will almost certainly be part of any state tolling strategy. Suggest tolls anywhere and expect Republican opposition.
This newspaper remains convinced that completing Route 11 is important for a variety of reasons. It will reduce congestion on Route 85, a two-lane route not designed for the heavy traffic volume it now experiences, and where crashes are too frequent. It would provide a direct route between the Hartford metropolitan area and the tourist attractions and recreational opportunities in southeastern Connecticut. And easier access between Hartford and southeastern Connecticut would be good for business generally.
Without a plan to pay for Route 11 construction the various federal regulatory approvals necessary for the project cannot move forward. But the price tag is high, $1.2 billion or more, with 80 percent coming from federal aid. A toll price cannot be set so high that it would discourage use of the new road. The state Department of Transportation is studying what would be an optimum toll rate. It may be that toll revenue can only supplement the state's share of the construction cost, not pay for it entirely.
But it is critical the process move forward. We give particular credit to the persistence of Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, a member of the Transportation Committee, and Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, the vice chair, for keeping the project alive. That alone is quite an achievement.