Osten advocates for tolls to fund critical roadwork; Norwich mayor opposed

Norwich — State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, used three Norwich bridges Friday to make the argument for tolls to provide a stable, steady funding source for hundreds of bridges in poor condition across the state, while Mayor Peter Nystrom hopes Norwich joins other cities and towns in opposing tolls.

Osten visited three bridges Friday: She stepped over guardrails to view substructures beneath an Interstate 395 bridge on Route 97 in Occum; stopped at the decaying Sherman Street bridge over the Yantic River; and saw the recently completed $2 million rehabilitation of the Pleasant Street bridge, also over the Yantic River. The I-395 bridge is scheduled for an $8.8 million upgrade to beams and bearings.

Osten said 332 bridges in Connecticut are rated as “deficient or worse,” with 279 of those rated in poor condition with “advanced section loss and major deterioration.”

The Sherman Street bridge superstructure was rated “critical” with “advanced deterioration” of its primary steel and concrete structural elements, Osten said. The bridge, actually two bridges — one over the Yantic and one over the adjacent former canal — is slated for a $10 million total replacement project that would shift the intersection with Asylum Street slightly.

But City Engineer and acting Public Works Director Patrick McLaughlin, who attended Osten’s tour, said the city is awaiting approval from the state Department of Transportation to proceed with the design phase of the project. A tentative schedule to go out to bid for the construction in 2020 likely will be delayed, McLaughlin said.

Funding is part of the issue, he said. Initially, the project was expected to cost $4 million to $5 million when repairs were proposed several years ago, but now it has been determined that a total replacement is needed. The project would be 80 percent federally funded, 10 percent state funded and 10 percent city funded.

Osten argued during her bridge visits that the only viable plan to address the state's infrastructure deficiencies is with “a steady funding stream” provided by electronic tolls. She said 40 percent of the tolls would be paid by out-of-state drivers, just as Connecticut drivers pay tolls that fund bridge and roadwork in neighboring states. She said out-of-state drivers have been “getting a free ride” on roads in Connecticut for decades.

Osten argued that the alternative plan proposed by legislative Republicans to use priority transportation bonding to fund road improvements would devastate funding for other bonded municipal projects, including school construction and renovations and even the Town Aid Road Grants fund for local roadwork.

Norwich Mayor Nystrom, a former Republican state representative, however, argued that tolls would be “another money grab” from Hartford that would hurt Norwich businesses and could clog city streets with drivers trying to avoid tolls placed on Route 2 or I-395.

Nystrom sponsored a resolution on Monday’s council agenda stating that the City Council “hereby declares its opposition to the current proposal for the implementation of tolls on Connecticut highways within the geographic confines of the City of Norwich.”

According to an Associated Press story, Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont is working with Democratic legislative leaders on a final toll bill that would have no more than 50 overhead electronic toll readers and only on interstates 95, 91 and 84 and Route 15 — none near Norwich.

Nystrom said the resolution was based on an early proposal for tolls that included I-395 and Route 2. He also doesn’t trust that Lamont’s latest proposed tolls would end with the four proposed highways, especially if the state creates a quasi-public transit authority that would have control over where tolls are placed in the future.

“They would go for the biggest proposal they could get,” Nystrom said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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