With committee vote, lawmakers map potential path to tolls

A legislative committee took the first steps Wednesday on what would be a long and complex journey to implement a comprehensive system of electronic highway tolls in Connecticut, endorsing three bills that broadly outline the process, while leaving crucial details about cost, frequency and location of tolls for another day.

All three bills would authorize the state Department of Transportation to develop and present a tolling plan to the Federal Highway Administration. A Senate bill would require the full General Assembly to vote twice on tolling, once this year on the enabling legislation and again on a highly detailed final plan.

Versions favored by House Democrats and the governor’s office would require hearings on the final plan developed by DOT and reviewed by the FHWA, which would precisely identify the location and pricing of tolling gantries, but not a second vote by the General Assembly.

The Senate bill abandons the idea of creating a transportation authority to oversee the system, specifies the responsibility for setting the price of tolls would rest with the legislature, and bars price increases for 10 years. The House measure still would establish the authority.

The differences will have to be resolved before they come to floor votes in either chamber.

“Within the next few weeks, we’ll be sitting down,” said Rep. Roland J. Lemar, D-New Haven, the co-chair of the Transportation Committee.

Under all three bills, tolling would be limited to the Merritt Parkway and Interstates 84, 91 and 95, the highways most used by out-of-state motorists, as well as in-state commuters. Based on the extensive environmental and social-impact studies required by federal highway officials, tolls most likely could not be collected before 2023.

If a tolls bill wins final legislative passage this year, it would provide a wedge issue in the 2020 fight for control of the General Assembly. The Republican minority in the legislature is opposed to tolls, leaving passage up to a Democratic legislative majority and a Democratic governor, Ned Lamont.

The debate Wednesday in committee reached beyond the narrow confines of the conceptual bill to the larger question of whether tolls are required to address what both parties agree is a desperate need to maintain and improve a highway system that in many areas is over capacity and far beyond its useful life.

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, and Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, exercised their rarely used prerogative as leaders to address a committee, reminding Democrats of a GOP alternative to forgo tolls and dedicate a larger percentage of state borrowing to transportation projects.

The administration has estimated that tolls, which would be collected by an E-ZPass system and bills sent to owners of motor vehicles whose license plates are photographed at overhead tolling gantries, could raise $800 million annually, with at least 30 percent coming from out-of-state drivers.

Lamont told reporters earlier Wednesday that he was committed to providing discounts for Connecticut drivers.

“We’re going to be as aggressive as I can be to protect Connecticut drivers going forward, and if anybody wants to come to the table with some other ideas and can bring them on board, I’m all ears,” Lamont said.

Rep. Laura Devlin, R-Fairfield, the ranking House Republican on the panel, told the committee members that tolling has bipartisan opposition, a grass-roots No Tolls group gathering more than 80,000 online petition signatures and resolutions passed by five communities, including Stamford.

“When has that ever happened?” Devlin said.

Mark Pazniokas is a reporter for The Connecticut Mirror (www.ctmirror.org). Copyright 2019 © The Connecticut Mirror.

mpazniokas@ctmirror.org

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