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Bring Tolls Back To State's Highways

LOST REVENUE Could finance transit projects, road and bridge repairs

Hartford Courant Editorial

February 28, 2010

Connecticut lawmakers to propose restoring tolls to finance the repair and maintainance of the state's aging highway infrastructure.

We agree with Mr. Guerrera that a new revenue stream to help solve Connecticut's woeful transportation problems is desperately needed.

We also agree with him that more money is needed to help pay for transit projects. High-speed rail, light rail, more commuter train routes, busways and the like would decrease the bedlam of congestion on highways, cut harmful emissions and give a jolt to the state's struggling economy.

But tolling won't be easy.

The Courant supported the elimination of tolls from I-95 and the Merritt and Wilbur Cross parkways in the 1980s after a deadly accident at the Stratford toll plaza. Traditional tolls meant long lines at the plazas and thus increased travel time, fuel waste, more pollution and of course a higher risk of accidents.

Those problems can be eliminated with new, overhead electronic tolling technology that does not require drivers to slow down and stop.

Mr. Guerrera wants the state to install high-tech tolls at seven key spots near its borders, charging motorists and truckers $3 each time they enter or leave the state. A consultant said that tolling scheme could generate nearly $600 million a year by 2015.

Mr. Guerrera thinks Connecticut can get the required federal waivers to restore tolls to federally financed highways. He may be overly optimistic.

The arrangement that developed in the past half-century between the states and federal government is that states who toll their interstate highways do not receive federal highway funds. After Connecticut stopped tolling in the 1980s, we began receiving federal road funds.

At present there are only limited exemptions to the rule that federally aided highways be toll-free. Converting an existing interstate into a toll road requires authority from the Federal Highway Administration and, to date, no existing interstate highway has been converted. Two states, Missouri and Virginia, have been accepted into the FHWA's Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program but have yet to begin.

The problem there is that there are only three slots in this pilot program, and Pennsylvania, among other states, is seeking the last one.

There's also the issue of tolls falling disproportionally on drivers in certain parts of the state.

Nonetheless, Mr. Guerrera should pursue the idea. It's possible the new federal transportation bill, expected to be approved by Congress this year, will make it easier to toll.

Mr. Guerrera says the toll money most of it coming, he contends, from out-of-state drivers should be used to maintain highways and repair the backlog of deteriorating bridges.

Under his plan, the state's 25-cents-a-gallon gas tax would be cut in half, saving the average driver about $50 a year. The remaining gas tax revenue would go solely for mass transit.

Cutting the gas tax in half might starve transit of needed revenue; if the tax hadn't been reduced in the 1990s, we'd have money to build transit and fix more roads and bridges today. If tolls are restored, the state should be flexible about using some of the toll revenue for transit projects.

The emphasis should be on transit projects and highway infrastructure repair, not highway expansion.

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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