Committee approves highway tolls; eliminates border requirement
Published 1:02 am, Thursday, March 18, 2010
HARTFORD -- A bill seeking to step up efforts to establish electronic tolls on highways statewide squeezed through committee Monday but not before Fairfield County legislators successfully deleted language that would have imposed road fees only in regions along state borders in towns such as Greenwich and Danbury.
"At least we got the word `border' out of it,'" said state Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, an author of the amendment in the General Assembly's Transportation Committee. "I still don't think there is much support for tolls whether at the borders or throughout the state."
Under the revised bill, which was approved by a margin of 19-17 by the General Assembly's Transportation Committee, the State Department of Transportation would need to complete a plan to present the committee by 2011 with a proposal how the state can re-establish electronic tolls on state highways.
The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, initially called for the DOT to weigh only establishing a boothless electronic highway system at points along state borders including Interstate 95 in Greenwich, Interstate 84 in Danbury, and Interstate 91 near Enfield.
Traffic would pass under an elevated gantry which would photograph a car's license plate and mail a bill to the registered owner of the car.
"It shows how contentious the issue is," Guerrera said of the close vote. "Even if it didn't get out of committee it doesn't mean it is dead, and we could get another bite of the apple."
Guerrera said the tolling system is needed to replace revenue for needed highway, rail and other transit projects in the state that have disappeared as vehicles get higher gas mileages and proceeds from a gross receipts tax on gasoline dwindle.
"Mark my words: In two to five years these cars will be getting 40 to 50 miles a gallon and we'll be filling up maybe once a month, not once a week," Guerrera said.
Even following McDonald's amendment, many Fairfield County legislators opposed out of concerns that tolls would be an economic drawback for the state, adding additional commuting costs for residents near state borders and deterring New York shoppers from visiting Connecticut businesses.
State Sen. L. Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich, voted in favor of McDonald's amendment but against the overall bill.
Frantz said no matter the technology involved, border tolling would likely defeat the purpose of the system because drivers would leave the highway to avoid the charges, clogging local roads.
A more equitable system would involve gantries statewide that would charge drivers at random intervals, making it impossible to choose to avoid the fees.
"If you don't have locations strategically throughout the state of Connecticut it is going to create problems not only in border towns but also fail to raise the revenues you want by allowing a lot of people to skip out of the system," Frantz said.
State Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, who also voted against the bill said the state should dedicate a bigger share of its Petroleum Gross Receipts Tax to transportation needs and continue to exhaust efforts to seek federal aid before pursuing a more aggressive plan to reinstitute tolls to build transportation infrastructure.
"This issue requires a lot more thought and we need to dig in to really expose some of the better ways to pay for transportation improvements," Duff said.
State Rep. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, voted in favor of the bill after the amendment, believing that further planning and discussion of the option of tolling would be beneficial.
In November, a report from the Connecticut DOT estimated that at the current level of federal funding, Connecticut has $3.7 billion of unfunded projects for maintenance and repair of roads, bridges, and rail systems.
"We need to keep the comments and the conversation moving forward in regards to tolls," Leone said. "Though no fan of tolls, we're facing serious repercussions in terms of revenue for transportation projects in coming years which alone justifies moving forward with this."