Lawmakers debate state highway tolls

Hartford - In the wake of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's proposed tax increases, the state legislature's Transportation Committee debated four bills Friday that could hit state residents in another way: tolls.

Chief among them was a bill introduced by state Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, that would put so-called "gateway" tolls on Connecticut's borders.

"I would urge this committee, in this time of economic distress, that we seriously consider the issue of putting tolls on our highways," Prague told the committee. "I'm a supporter of gateway tolls. But, frankly, I'm a supporter of tolls, period. We just need the money.

"The other states around us are taking in millions and millions and millions of dollars. We have the two largest casinos in the country here in our state. We're missing out on a great deal of revenue."

Prague has long been an advocate for tolls, but her proposal has been dismissed in the past. If the discussion among committee members Friday was any indication, this year may be different.

Prague's bill is one of two that would establish tolls at the borders; the second was introduced by state Rep. Antonio Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, the committee co-chairman.

Both argue that money raised by those tolls would go into the state's Special Transportation Fund to pay for repairs to roads and bridges and to buy buses and railway cars.

"I think the most important thing that we're trying to do here is to keep our roadways safe and our bridges safe," Guerrera said. "The only way we're going to do that - let's be honest with ourselves - is to have money."

"And where are we going to get it?" Prague said.

"The federal government has already stated that they are borrowing against the debt to supplement all the states when it comes to infrastructure," Guerrera said. "Already there are rumors that they're going to allow states, basically, to think outside the box for how they're going to generate revenue."

Guerrera suggested that tolls could supplement diminishing revenues from the gasoline tax.

"As you know, Gov. Malloy in his budget address just increased the gas tax by three cents, but then there's a flip side to that," he said. "As these vehicles get better gas mileage, fuel cells, electric cars, that revenue stream is going to get dried up because you're not going to be going to the gas pump once a week. You may be going once a month now."

Loss of funding

Not everyone on the committee was in favor of the idea.

State Rep. David Scribner, R-Bethel, warned that the state could lose federal funding if it puts in tolls.

"Because the legislature voluntary removed tolls largely because of safety concerns back in 1987, we have enjoyed additional federal transportation funding sources every year since," Scribner said. "That would very clearly be jeopardized should we decide to reimplement tolls. We would compromise the funding that we've been getting for the last 23 years, which now approaches $500 million per year."

State Rep. Steve Mikutel, D-Griswold, had another concern: Pointing to the legislature's history of raiding the transportation fund for other purposes, he wondered what kind of assurances he could have that the money raised from tolls would go to transportation projects.

Guerrera suggested that the law be revised to make a "lockbox" for the funds raised by the tolls.

Mikutel wondered, too, given that the proposed gasoline tax in Malloy's budget "would be the highest in the nation, would there be any possibility, if we put in tolls, of a reduced gas tax?"

Tolls called unfair

Others were clearly against the idea.

"I strongly oppose these tolls being placed on our borders," said state Rep. Fred Camillo, R-Greenwich. "To ask working-class people who live on the borders, who may have to go into the city ... or may have to go over to Portchester [N.Y.] to pay this toll, is unfair."

Also, Camillo said, putting tolls on the highways will have an impact on local roads - the increased traffic of people taking them to avoid the tolls - and "that's taxing our local infrastructure."

"Again, those towns are going to bear that cost," he said.

Others wondered whether tolls would be worth it, given the cost of maintaining and manning them.

"The Office of Legislative Research has put out a document that tells you how much the border states take in and how much it costs them," Prague said. "They're still millions of dollars ahead of the game."

Camillo had another objection.

"I know the city of Danbury," he said. "They get a lot of people who come over the New York border to shop there. You put a three-dollar toll each way, it's six dollars. There goes their savings. That's going to hurt commerce."

There was some discussion of whether it would be possible, or even legal, to give Connecticut residents a break, a credit or an exemption on border tolls so that the burden would fall on out-of-staters passing through.

Two other bills before the committee proposed using tolls for different purposes.

One, introduced by state Rep. Ed Jutila, D-Niantic, would put tolls on new highways or highway extensions - such as Route 11 - to help defray the cost of their construction. Such tolls would be only temporary, removed once they had paid the state's share of the cost of building the roads.

The fourth, introduced by state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, would require the installation of EZ Pass toll stations on the interstates to charge large cargo trucks for passing through the state.

State Sen. L. Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich, asked Prague why she wanted to put the tolls on the borders as opposed, say, to other places in the state.

"At one point," Prague said, "I thought it would be a great idea to put them in front of the casinos."

The committee laughed.

"But," she said, "you can't do that."

k.robinson@theday.com

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