Tolls would take toll on tourism industry, some say

Out-of-state drivers would fork over as much as 40 percent of the money Gov. Ned Lamont’s toll plan would generate, according to estimates.

How’s that likely to sit with tourists?

“I think tolls would throw a complete wet blanket on tourism in southeastern Connecticut,” said state Rep. Doug Dubitsky, a Chaplin Republican whose district includes a piece of Norwich. “We have some of the best attractions in the state and in New England. We’ve got the casinos, the New London area is trying to grow and Norwich is starting to come back with restaurants, cafes and breweries, all of which bring people in ..."

“If it’s going to cost people an extra $10 or $15 to get to the (Mystic) Seaport, the aquarium, the casinos, they’re just going to go elsewhere,” he said.

Tourism, Dubitsky said, generates far more revenue from people living outside the state than the state spends trying to attract their dollars — all the more reason it makes no sense to put off would-be visitors.

Nevertheless, the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut supports an electronic tolling system as the best way for the state to raise the money it needs to maintain its transportation system. The argument for tolls “can be boiled down to two words: commerce and tourism,” Tony Sheridan, the chamber’s president and chief executive officer, wrote last week in a published opinion piece.

State Sen. Heather Somers, a Groton Republican, said she was surprised by the chamber’s position.

“I’m curious whether he’s talked to members,” she said, referring to Sheridan. “They’re not saying at all what he’s saying.”

Somers said the toll plan backed by Lamont and most Democrats, which now calls for no more than 50 toll gantries on Interstates 84, 91 and 95 and Route 15, amounts to a toll every six miles, “not a welcoming prospect for anyone coming to Connecticut.”

Most Republican lawmakers, including Dubitsky, Somers and more than a half dozen others representing multitown districts in southeastern Connecticut, favor the GOP’s plan to fund transportation improvements through a prioritized approach to bonding rather than tolls.

The problem with tolls, said Stephen Tagliatela, chairman of the Connecticut Tourism Coalition, is that they amount to another tax on the tourism industry. Already, he said, the industry is grappling with the highest-in-the-nation hotel room occupancy tax, which the governor’s budget has proposed hiking from 15 to 17 percent. A portion of the revenue generated by the tax is diverted to a state tourism fund.

“If you want to kill a business, you tax it,” said Tagliatela, co-owner of the Saybrook Point Inn, Marina & Spa in Old Saybrook.

While opposed to statewide tolling, Tagliatela suggested the state consider tolling at a specific site to raise revenue for improvements at that site, such as at a particular bridge. He pointed to the so-called "Q Bridge" project in New Haven, a massive undertaking that has succeeded in relieving congestion and helping spur tourism and economic growth in that city.

There might have been a way to fund the project with tolls at or near the bridge, Tagliatela said, “but facing a gantlet every six miles makes no sense at all.”

Sheri Cote, who became president of the Shoreline Chamber of Commerce last year after more than 15 years with the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, agreed that tolls would harm tourism in the state. She said her organization, which represents Branford, Guilford and North Branford, has not officially adopted a position on the issue.

“(Last) Monday morning," she said, "I got an email from a man in western Massachusetts who’s been coming here on vacations for years to the hot spots: Mystic Aquarium, Mystic Seaport, the Steam Train (in Essex). He said, ‘If you put in tolls, that comes to a screeching halt.’ ... He’s not the only one.”

Cote said she understands that the states surrounding Connecticut have tolls, “but they’re spending more money on tourism.”

“If we do tolls, we need to up the ante,” she said.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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