Everything you need to know about tolls — and a plan against them — in Connecticut

Discussing tolls in New London on Thursday, Gov. Ned Lamont said he couldn't "think of a more important priority to get this state going again."

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Indeed, tolls have been a hot topic since a state-commissioned study called for 82 electronic toll gantries across 13 Connecticut highways last fall.

While those numbers have been refined — Lamont's latest plan would have 50 gantries spanning four highways — most neighboring states have tolls on just one highway, not several.

But other transportation funding proposals are on the table, including a House bill, a Senate bill and the Republicans' Prioritize Progress plan, which doesn't include tolls.

Read on for an analysis of each option and excerpts from the more than 50 readers who responded to our voluntary CuriousCT survey — on www.theday.com, by email, on social media and even by snail mail.

Gov. Lamont's plan

In this Aug. 22, 2016 file photo, cars pass under toll sensor gantries hanging over the Massachusetts Turnpike in Newton, Mass.
FILE - In this Aug. 22, 2016 file photo, cars pass under toll sensor gantries hanging over the Massachusetts Turnpike in Newton, Mass. Connecticut is considering bringing tolls to four of its highways. (Elise Amendola/AP Photo, File)

Of the toll plans, most widely discussed so far is the one Gov. Ned Lamont outlined in his proposed budget, which House Bill No. 7202 suggests should be implemented.

The malleable plan calls for no more than 50 electronic toll gantries — or the structures equipped with cameras that read drivers' plates — to be spread across Interstates 84, 91 and 95 and the Merritt Parkway.

Construction on the tolls would begin no earlier than 2022 and would cost $213 million. Once operational, Lamont estimated the tolls would generate about $800 million annually to help the Department of Transportation address Connecticut's crumbling infrastructure.

Lamont's plan, at a glance

- Tolls on Interstates 84, 91 and 95 and the Merritt Parkway

- Connecticut E-ZPass users will get a discount

- Won't be installed until at least 2022

- Could generate $800 billion yearly starting in 2023

Per Lamont's budget, 47 percent of state-maintained roadways are in less-than-good condition, while 334 bridges are in poor condition.

"It would be negligent for Connecticut to wait for a major bridge to fail before acting," the budget reads.

Where the gantries will be placed isn't yet clear, though some politicians, including state Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, seem certain they'll end up on key bridges such as the Gold Star Memorial.

Drivers without Connecticut E-ZPasses would spend about 7.9 cents per mile during peak travel times and see a 6.3-cent rate when it's less busy.

Connecticut E-ZPass users would get at least a 30 percent discount, while medium-sized trucks, buses and tractor-trailers would pay higher rates. Discounts for frequent users and/or low-income drivers still are on the table.

Need to commute from New London to New Haven? That could cost anywhere from $3.78 to $7.39 per round-trip, depending on who you are, when you travel and which exits you use.

A commute from Old Lyme to Stonington could cost anywhere from $1.58 to $3.92 per round trip.

They are using the airwaves to drive this thing home and get all these people riled up. But nobody's sitting down to have a conversation and say, 'Let's really think about this.'
Tim Sperry

"Republicans and Democrats agree transportation is a mess in this state, that it's a quality-of-life and economic issue," said Colleen Johnson, senior adviser for the Lamont administration. "The issue is, how do we pay to fix it?"

Johnson said a major benefit of Lamont's plan is that about 40 percent of the revenue would come from out-of-state drivers.

"We would love to have Republicans at the table, but they have said tolls are a no-go," she said. "They're saying, 'Our preference is for Connecticut residents to pick up 100 percent of the costs of wear and tear on our highways.'"

Under the Republican plan (see Chapter 2), the state would use part of its annual $2 billion bonding cap to fulfill DOT's needs in each of the next 30 years.

Tim Sperry, a 63-year-old Guilford resident who commutes daily to Storrs, said Connecticut should have introduced tolls a long time ago.

Sperry, an organic and specialty food consultant, used to commute from the Boston area to Connecticut. Paying tolls in Massachusetts but driving "scot-free" here always struck him as odd, he said.

Sperry had some caveats — he said the state should improve public transportation, offer a discount for low-income residents and stagger fees so they're higher near cities — but called tolls a reasonable solution to waning gas tax revenue.

"Let's wake up and face the realities that our roads and bridges need repairs and we're not going to get (the funding) from the gas tax," he said.

Michael Dreimiller, a digital media specialist at Connecticut College, said he supports the idea of tolls because those who use the highways generate the funds to repair them.

That benefit of getting the out-of-state portion of drivers to pay seems like something we ought to be doing.
Michael Dreimiller

Dreimiller, who commutes daily from Gales Ferry, said he wouldn't adjust his commute to avoid the Gold Star bridge, should a gantry be placed there.

"I think any new tax is going to have opposition — and from both sides," the 59-year-old said. "But I think at some point you have to look at the level of services you want your state to be providing, and there's a point where you just can't cut it anymore."

Asked whether he has concerns about politicians diverting the funds for other uses, Dreimiller, a near lifelong resident of Connecticut, said, "Of course I do."

"They've taken money out of the fund in the past," he said. "I understand why they did it, but that just shifted the problem from one point to another. If we really do have an infrastructure problem, we can't afford to do that anymore."

A plan without tolls

No Tolls CT protesters picket against state plans for highway tolls, Saturday, April 6, 2019.
No Tolls CT protesters picket against state plans for highway tolls, Saturday, April 6, 2019, on Route 1 at Kings Highway in Groton. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Somers, the Groton senator, said she has been against tolls "from the beginning."

Once gantries are installed, she said, it'll be easy for the state to raise the rates and hard for residents to get the gantries removed.

She also said most residents, because they can't change the hours they drive, will be stuck traveling during "peak" hours and paying the highest rates.

The Republican plan, at a glance

- Does not include tolls

- Uses bonding, or borrowing, to fund transportation projects

- Funds DOT beginning in 2020

About 250 people came to a forum she hosted in Groton on April 8, she said, demonstrating how "concerned and upset" residents are by the prospect of tolls.

Residents also protested in Groton and New London during an April 6 event arranged by No Tolls CT, a grassroots group that has been hosting rallies and forums statewide since February.

Somers said Connecticut can and should fix its infrastructure without new revenue, as outlined in the Republicans' Prioritize Progress plan.

Each year, the state is allowed to bond, or borrow, up to $2 billion for various projects. Prioritize Progress allots a set amount for transportation each year, starting with $703.7 million in 2020.

Naysayers, including Lamont, have said the plan would divert bonding money from school construction and affordable housing, but Somers said the plan funds "core services" including school construction, clean water and town aid.

"That was important to us," she said.

"I think some people also are under the misconception that if we add tolls, we won't bond" the full $2 billion, Somers said. "But if they think politicians in this state are not going to use all of the money, they're not thinking straight."

Getting back to the impact on local people and retirees, there's a cumulative effect of many things going on at same time. Not everybody understands that.
Michael Hugyo

Politicians and residents discussed the Republican plan during a public hearing of the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee on Friday. Almost 100 people submitted testimony that was posted on the General Assembly website, with some pleading for the state to reject tolls but others calling bonding an expensive, burdensome option.

Sitting at a table in Muddy Waters last week, Michael Hugyo, 70, said tolls might force those who are on a fixed income to leave.

Hugyo, a Waterford resident who often visits his daughter in Rhode Island, said he's fortunate to have a good pension on top of the Social Security he collects. But he already left Fairfield County to cut costs about 18 years ago and he's not sure where else he can save.

Hugyo said businesses small and large likely will pass the cost of tolls and other proposed new taxes on to consumers.

"And the people on fixed income are consumers, so there again they get hit," he said.

Hugyo, a lifelong Connecticut resident, said he believes the installation of tolls is "a foregone conclusion." He plans to leave within "a year or two" because of the tolls.

Scott Matson, 50, said he has become "increasingly dissatisfied" with the way Connecticut outspends its earnings and breaks promises to residents.

I don’t want to see class warfare. But why don’t we spend our money better? Then we won’t have to fight so much.
Scott Matson

"If I lost my job tomorrow — my wife and I both work — we could live, but we're going to have to start cutting some stuff out," said Matson, a physician who lives and works in Glastonbury.

Matson isn't sure if tolls are a good idea, but he doesn't think they'll "transform Connecticut into a place that can afford itself" and he doesn't believe politicians will use the money for infrastructure alone.

Matson said Connecticut should stop adding revenue streams and evaluate its spending instead.

"I'd like to see us tighten our belt and position ourselves between New York- and New Jersey-type taxes," he said. "I think we could maintain a high level of services and spending ... and yet attract people rather than have them leave."

 

 

 

Two other proposals

A tractor-trailer passes under a truck toll gantry between exits 2 and 3 along Interstate 95 northbound in Hopkinton, R.I.
A tractor-trailer passes under a truck toll gantry June 14, 2018, between exits 2 and 3 along Interstate 95 northbound in Hopkinton, R.I. The toll for trucks is $3.25. (Tim Martin/The Day, File)

In addition to the bill that backs Lamont's plan, the Transportation Committee also endorsed two other toll proposals: Senate Bill No. 423 and House Bill No. 7280.

Prepared by Democrats, each proposal also limits tolling to the Merritt Parkway and interstates 84, 91 and 95.

Neither outlines the number of gantries or the proposed cost per mile.

The House bill calls for a transportation authority to oversee the tolls and requires public hearings on the final plan.

The Senate bill leaves legislators responsible for setting toll prices, bars price increases for 10 years and, in addition to hearings, requires a second vote from the full General Assembly on the final plan.

Legislators still are finalizing the version they'll put forward later this session.

You respond

State Senator Paul Formica speaks during a forum on tolls in early April at Old Lyme High School.
State Sen. Paul Formica speaks during a forum on tolls April 9, 2019, at Old Lyme High School. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

Our readers are nurses, retired correction officers, small-business owners, social workers and research scientists.

Some live where they work. Some travel from Groton to New London, or Norwich to East Lyme. Others go as far as Middletown, East Hartford, Worcester, Mass., or Kingston, R.I.

Many have thought-provoking reasons as to why they accept or reject the idea of tolls in Connecticut.

Typical commutes as submitted by our readers

Take Sandy Cross, a 60-year-old nurse who has worked at the ACES Center for Autism Spectrum and Developmental Disorders in Northford for four years.

"I love where I work," said Cross, who commutes daily from Pawcatuck. "The people there are like family to me."

She said Lamont's plan would cost her at least $1,200 a year and force her to find a job closer to home.

"I'm not going to get that in a raise," she said. "I'm already paying gas and dealing with wear on my car. This would just tip that scale, I think."

Through CuriousCT — a project intended to make it easier for readers to direct some of our news coverage — more than 40 readers reacted to Lamont’s toll plan.

Of those who responded to The Day's unscientific survey, almost seven in 10 were against the plan. Some said they drive throughout the state daily. Others reported minimal commutes. Many — even those in favor of tolls — said they don’t trust politicians to use the money for infrastructure. One vowed to use only back roads should tolls be installed.

Several people said secondary roads could suffer as drivers avoid the tolls. They questioned whether the state would provide aid in response.

Cathy Weaver, a Lyme resident and radiologic technologist, said she likes the idea of tolls if senior citizens and students drive free, residents receive “greatly” reduced rates and the money is used only for infrastructure improvements.

Bob Coggeshall, who “disagrees with Ned Lamont on almost every other issue,” said as long as the money is used as promised, he can’t “understand why local people are against this proposal.”

Coggeshall, an operating engineer who commutes from Uncasville to New London at least four times a week, said tolls could make the state’s major highways less crowded and be a boon for businesses on secondary roads.

Recalling when Connecticut had tolls in 1985 and earlier, Groton resident Stephanie Belser said the cost per mile figure is less important than where the state installs gantries.

“Assuming that the state is evil enough to put a gantry across the Gold Star Bridge,” she wrote, “everyone passing over the bridge will be charged that, regardless of where they got on or off the highway in New London and Groton.”

Belser also wondered if the state could begin issuing speeding tickets based on the elapsed time between gantries.

Anne McCloskey, an 83-year-old Niantic resident who sent a letter by mail, said her family began driving to Niantic from Washington, D.C., in the 1930s — a 13-hour trip at the time.

“I remember my parents being so excited to arrive at the wonderful new Merritt Parkway,” she wrote. “Then, as the years went on, we saw the building of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, the New Jersey Turnpike, I-95 in Maryland and Delaware, the Tappan Zee Bridge, the Connecticut Turnpike — all to be used for a small toll fee. It cut the drive to about seven hours, then less when electronic tolls came along — a real blessing!”

McCloskey said she uses I-95 frequently and is dismayed by how long it takes compared to other states’ highways.

“Connecticut is a real laggard when it comes to road updates,” she wrote. “This may be the Land of Steady Habits, but maybe it is time to rattle some cages and change some habits!”

 

"I'd rather pay tolls than be on a deficient bridge when it collapses."

"I'm 28. Should I sell my home and move back in with my parents?"

"Tolls are long overdue. Every state around us collects tolls."

"We're nuts if we don't do it."

"I am tired of working to pay Connecticut. I am leaving this summer."

"We had a transportation lock box that didn't serve its purpose. Isn't this next?"

"Where will the money come from to fix (secondary roads) after all locals avoid the tolls?"

"Shame on Ned Lamont, who told us that he would not do this to us."

"This will probably kill me."

"My special care doctors require me to drive to New Haven. Do I choose to skip every other appointment?"

"My main concern for tolls is the impact they will have on the cost of EVERYTHING ELSE in this state."

"Tolls are not the answer to solving the financial issues of the state."

l.boyle@theday.com">l.boyle@theday.com

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