Opinions mixed in public hearing on highway tolls in Connecticut

Hartford - Although proponents acknowledge that highway tolls have little chance of advancing from concept to reality this year, the state's Transportation Committee spent the better part of four hours mulling the merits and drawbacks of their implementation on Friday.

The committee held a public hearing on a proposal to put electronic tolls at the state's borders. Testimony on the concept was divided and hit upon every talking point familiar to anyone who has followed the issue.

They included:

• Tolls are a more effective, and fair, revenue generator than the gasoline tax.

• Border tolls are an unfair burden to state residents who must cross state lines each day to get to work.

• Tolls will eliminate Connecticut's competitive advantage as the only state in the region that doesn't have them.

• Connecticut deemed tolls as dangerous and removed them following a tollbooth accident in January 1983 that killed seven people when a tractor-trailer collided with three cars at the Stratford toll plaza.

• Tolling today is far different from the tollbooths of old and doesn't require drivers to slow down because of electronic sensors similar to the E-ZPass system.

• Traffic would be diverted from highways to local roads.

Similar to a hearing on keno held last week, Friday's hearing on tolls included a nod to the state's ballooning deficit and an agreement among nearly all speakers that the state needs to find different ways of generating revenue.

"There's no doubt that our state is facing unprecedented fiscal times, and there are few bullets left in our holster," said Rudy Marconi, Ridgefield's first selectman and a gubernatorial candidate. "I'm here to say that ... tolls represent probably one of the best alternatives to the situation that's in front of us today."

Others said they want to see surrounding states pay Connecticut the way Connecticut pays them.

"Everywhere else, you have to pay," said state Rep. Joseph Serra, D-Middletown. "Supposedly we're ... smart and highly educated in the Northeast, and we just allow everybody to use our infrastructure and not pay."

But Mike Riley, president of the Motor Transport Association of Connecticut Inc., later argued that others - or at least the long-haul truckers - do indeed pay Connecticut for the use of its roads.

Riley cited the International Fuel Tax Agreement, a federal program in which the trucking industry must track its mileage and then distribute taxes among the states in which truckers drive.

Each quarter, Riley said, every trucker must report through a clearinghouse how many miles he traveled, where fuel was purchased, the amount paid in fuel taxes, and where the fuel was consumed. The agreement also factors in the mileage that a truck gets, Riley said.

If a trucker purchased gas and paid a gas tax in New Jersey, then "consumed" the gas in Connecticut, Riley said, the trucker would cut a check and the agreement would ensure that Connecticut received a portion of the money.

Riley also said truckers do not object, in principle, to the idea of setting up tolls to pay for a highway project. Salem residents Peter Sielman and David Bingham proposed an amendment to the bill that would allow the state to put tolls on the existing Route 11 to pay for that highway's completion; the state would bond for the work and pay it back with revenue generated by the tolls.

"I believe tolls, if you're going to do them, are highway user fees and should be used for improvements, like the Route 11 issue," Riley said.

State Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, asked a variety of speakers Friday whether they'd support the concept of setting up tolls to pay for new highways, highway extensions, or for adding lanes.

After the hearing, Jutila said that he'd like the state to look at the idea beyond what it could mean for Route 11.

"We have to face the reality that, without some mechanism for funding, we're not going to do a lot of projects we'd like to do in the state of Connecticut, including Route 11," Jutila said, adding later, "I want to look at this as more of a statewide policy, whenever we're adding capacity."

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