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Highway Tolls: A Way To Cut Connecticut's Gas Tax?

Don Stacom

February 19, 2011

Commuters and retailers in Enfield and Danbury share one reaction to the idea of highway tolls at the state's borders: "Forget it."

In the New London region, though, a different toll proposal gets a much warmer reaction.

"There have always been naysayers who will try to defeat your progressive, positive ideas," Salem First Selectman Kevin Lyden told state lawmakers Friday as he warned that Route 11 which was supposed to connect Route 2 and I-95 but now ends in his town won't get completed without tolls.

Charging drivers who use Connecticut's highways is among the more controversial proposals before the General Assembly this year. Advocates aren't united on exactly who to charge or where to charge, and opponents have a time-tested argument to any plan: People don't like tolls.

"What does it say about a state that wants to 'be open for business' when we put up tolls that act as a barrier?" Stephen Bull, president of the Greater Danbury Chamber of Commerce, asked the transportation committee at an all-day hearing Friday.

But with the state low on cash and facing billions of dollars worth of overdue highway repairs, toll promoters have their most powerful counter-argument since Connecticut removed its tollbooths in 1988.

"We're trying to keep our roadways and bridges safe, and let's be honest with ourselves we're going to need money," said committee Co-Chairman Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill.

"Other states around us are taking in millions and millions and millions of dollars with tolls," said Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia.

Lawmakers are offering about a half-dozen different proposals for reinstituting tolls this year, and Guerrera's committee in the next month is expected to forward at least one for a vote. Some would charge drivers as they enter Connecticut from Massachusetts, New York or Rhode Island, with revenue going into the Special Transportation Fund for highway and transit projects.

One alternative would put tolls only on unfinished highways such as Route 11 to fund completion. Another would levy the tolls only on trucks.

Even long-time toll opponents are hedging their bets this year. After testifying that Connecticut should skip the idea completely, several speakers quickly followed up with conditions to impose on any toll plan that goes forward. They all agreed the state should use high-tech, electronic tolls rather than the old-fashioned toll booths that required drivers to stop and pay cash and most insisted that toll revenue be protected from the budget-balancing raids that have sapped gas tax revenue for years.

Guerrera and Rep. Steven Mikutel, D-Griswold, agreed that a key component of new toll legislation would be phasing out the state gas tax. That would ease the burden on Connecticut drivers while getting guaranteed revenue from out-of-state vacationers, long-haul truckers and others who contribute to highway congestion, Guerrera said.

Business leader R. Nelson "Oz" Griebel, head of the MetroHartford Alliance, said that border tolls are the wrong answer, but that a more fair system of tolling is the best way to catch up on overdue road maintenance.

"If we in Connecticut want to maintain and expand our infrastructure, we have to be adults and take more of the responsibility for funding it," he said. "The transportation system is key to a robust economy, job growth and job retention."

Several legislators said the federal government prohibits tolls on highways that were built with federal funds, but Guerrera and others countered that this is likely to change as Congress tries to deal with its own budget crises.

U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, said Friday that he hasn't spoken about the issue with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, but that the possibilities for waivers of toll rules are stronger than in previous years.

"Given what's going on with the finances of the states, there might be an opportunity here," Larson said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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