Rhetoric fuels debate over prospect of tolls' return to Connecticut

It seems as if Connecticut’s been debating the reinstatement of highway tolls since soon after their removal in the 1980s.

The current election season has been no exception, with Democratic and Republican candidates for the state legislature voicing positions adopted by their respective camps, the former generally supportive of “electronic tolls” and the latter dismissing them as “just another tax.”

In state Senate debates sponsored by The Day, the sides differed over whether the state would lose federal funding if it implemented tolls on its interstate highways. Federal officials have confirmed that it would not.

"I am not in favor of tolls and I’ll tell you why,” Sen. Heather Somers, a Groton Republican, said during an 18th District debate in Groton. “They don’t make financial sense.”

Somers said that if Connecticut restored interstate tolls at its borders, it would have to repay more than $6 billion in Federal Highway Administration funding it’s received since 1984, when the state agreed to remove its tolls. Or, she said, the state would have to put tolls on highways throughout the state’s interior.

“You will have a toll every four miles on every road,” she said, though there would be no tollbooths. Electronic tolling systems enable drivers to pass under overhead gantries without even having to slow down.

Bob Statchen, Somers's Democratic challenger, said he didn’t believe her numbers were accurate, dismissing her statement as “a fear tactic.” He said he supported at least studying tolls.

In a 19th District debate in Norwich, Sen. Cathy Osten, a Sprague Democrat, fended off Republican challenger Mark Lounsbury’s claims that the state would forfeit future federal funding and be forced to pay back money it’s received over the years if it placed tolls at its interstate borders. If it pursued an alternative plan calling for “70 to 80 tolls” on state highways and roads, “It’s going to be costly,” he said.

“That’s a boondoggle. That’s just not true,” Osten, a member of the legislature’s Transportation Committee, said of the notion that the state would risk the loss of federal highway funds. She said a plan involving scores of tolls throughout the state has never gained traction with lawmakers. 

In a phone interview last week, Osten said no one on the state level is suggesting that only border tolls be reinstated.

“Studies have looked at options, where it makes the most sense to put them (tolls),” she said. “The possibilities are (Interstates) 84, 95, 91, but not just on the borders. There’s been no specific plan on where tolls would go.”

Rhetoric aside, Osten said, the state has an infrastructure problem that toll revenue could help address.

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In January 1983, a tractor-trailer truck rammed into three cars at an I-95 toll plaza in Stratford, killing seven people, injuring others and seemingly sounding a death knell for tolls in Connecticut.

By the end of 1985, eight toll plazas on the Connecticut Turnpike — the stretch of I-95 from the New York border to I-395 in East Lyme and I-395 from there to U.S. Route 6 in Killingly — had been removed, according to the state Department of Transportation. Tolls on the Merritt and Wilbur Cross parkways continued to operate until mid-1988, and the last highway toll in Connecticut was collected the next year at the Charter Oak Bridge in Hartford.

Six months after the Stratford toll accident, a 100-foot section of the Mianus River Bridge on I-95 in Greenwich collapsed, killing three people and critically injuring three more.

Within weeks of the collapse, Connecticut signed a deal with the federal government in which it agreed to remove all tolls from the Connecticut Turnpike once the costs associated with the highway’s construction, including debt service, had been satisfied. In exchange, the turnpike became eligible for “Interstate 4R funds” to “resurface, restore, rehabilitate or rebuild.”

In 1984, the Federal Highway Administration told the state DOT that it would have to repay any federal funds it received if it kept or restored tolls on I-95, according to a state Office of Legislative Research report. If Connecticut pursued a plan to put a toll on I-95 at the Rhode Island border in North Stonington, it would have to repay federal money it used for projects on I-95 between its juncture with I-395 and Rhode Island.

But, as fuel-efficient cars and trucks have generated less and less motor fuels tax revenue for federal highway improvements in recent years, the FHWA has relaxed its prohibition on tolling. Exceptions to the ban include projects pursued under the administration's Value Pricing Pilot Program, which provides state and local governments with grants to study ways to manage traffic flow through “congestion pricing” — charging a higher toll at peak travel times and lower or no toll at other times.

The Connecticut DOT received VPPP grants to study congestion on I-95 between the New York border and New Haven and on I-84 in Hartford. Since the completion of the studies, FHWA officials have confirmed to the DOT that Connecticut would not lose any federal funding if it implements tolls and congestion pricing on these two interstates.

“Repayment would not be required if Connecticut restores tolling under the terms of the VPP Program, or any other current federal tolling program. …,” FHWA officials wrote in a February 2017 response to questions posed by DOT officials. “Should Connecticut decide to toll a highway under the VPP program — or any authorized FHWA tolling program under current law — Connecticut will not receive less highway funding as a result. In fact, Connecticut might be able to take credit for its new toll highway(s) expenditures as a ‘soft match’ for federal-aid funds spent elsewhere in its program. ..."

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The I-95 tolling study completed in 2016 by CDM Smith, a Boston-based consulting firm, evaluated a number of electronic tolling alternatives. It found the two best options involved adding one lane to I-95 in each direction between Bridgeport and Stamford. The first option called for tolling only I-95 between New Haven and New York while the second called for tolling the same stretch of I-95 as well as the Merritt Parkway, which runs parallel to the interstate. Drivers would pass under 12 gantries on I-95 while drivers on the Merritt would pass under 10 gantries.

The study assumed toll rates of 50 cents at each gantry during peak travel times and 35 cents during off-peak hours. A full-length trip on I-95 would cost $6 at peak times and $4.20 at off-peak times. The same trips on the Merritt would costs $5 and $3, respectively.

Bills calling for the restoration of tolls — or at least further study — have cleared the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee in each of the last two legislative sessions but the measures have gone no further. A 2017 bill would have authorized the DOT “to build, maintain and operate electronic tolls,” or contract with a private operator to do so, while this year’s proposed legislation would have required the DOT to develop a plan for implementing tolls on I-95, I-91, I-84 and the Merritt and Wilbur Cross parkways. The plan would have to have specified locations of toll gantries and a schedule of toll rates.

In late July, the state Bond Commission approved bonding that included $10 million for a new tolls study pitched by the outgoing governor, Democrat Dannel P. Malloy, whose term ends in January. The study calls for the DOT to hire consultants to conduct an environmental assessment of any tolling as well as "a more thorough assessment” of various options for an all-electronic toll system.

None of the bond funding has yet been expended, Judd Everhart, the DOT’s director of communications, said last week. It’s fate, indeed the fate of the restoration of tolls on Connecticut highways, likely rests with the outcome of the state elections.

On the campaign trail, Ned Lamont, the Democratic candidate for governor, has said he would fully fund the state’s Special Transportation Fund by introducing electronic tolling of heavy trucks entering the state. Republican Bob Stefanowski opposes the reinstatement of tolls and would turn to public-private partnerships to help fund infrastructure improvements. Oz Griebel, an independent candidate who chaired the state's defunct Transportation Strategy Board, supports electronic tolling and would launch a pilot program on interstates in the Hartford area before deciding whether to expand the approach. 

Sacred Heart University’s Institute for Public Policy asked likely Connecticut voters this month if they agreed that “electronic highway tolls that collect significant money from out-of-state motorists and interstate trucks as well as from Connecticut residents would be an effective way to help pay for highway improvements to relieve congestion.”

Fifty-two percent indicated they agreed with the statement.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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